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THE KING’S PRIZE
The king’s host departed Deepwood Motte by the light of a golden dawn, uncoiling from behind the log palisades like a long, steel serpent emerging from its nest.

The southron knights rode out in plate and mail, dinted and scarred by the battles they had fought, but still bright enough to glitter when they caught the rising sun. Faded and stained, torn and mended, their banners and surcoats still made a riot of colors amidst the winter wood—azure and orange, red and green, purple and blue and gold, glimmering amongst bare brown trunks, grey-green pines and sentinels, drifts of dirty snow.

Each knight had his squires, servants, and men-at-arms. Behind them came armorers, cooks, grooms; ranks of spearmen, axemen, archers; grizzled veterans of a hundred battles and green boys off to fight their first. Before them marched the clansmen from the hills; chiefs and champions astride shaggy garrons, their hirsute fighters trotting beside them, clad in furs and boiled leather and old mail. Some painted their faces brown and green and tied bundles of brush about them, to hide amongst the trees.

Back of the main column the baggage train followed: mules, horses, oxen, a mile of wayns and carts laden with food, fodder, tents, and other provisions. Last the rear guard—more knights in plate and mail, with a screening of outriders following half-hidden to make certain no foe could steal up on them unawares.

Asha Greyjoy rode in the baggage train, in a covered wayn with two huge iron-rimmed wheels, fettered at wrist and ankle and watched over day and night by a She-Bear who snored worse than any man. His Grace King Stannis was taking no chances on his prize escaping captivity. He meant to carry her to Winterfell, to display her there in chains for the lords of the north to see, the kraken’s daughter bound and broken, proof of his power.

Trumpets saw the column on its way. Spearpoints shone in the light of the rising sun, and all along the verges the grass glistened with the morning frost. Between Deepwood Motte and Winterfell lay one hundred leagues of forest. Three hundred miles as the raven flies. “Fifteen days,” the knights told each other.

“Robert would have done it in ten,” Asha heard Lord Fell boasting. His grandsire had been slain by Robert at Summerhall; somehow this had elevated his slayer to godlike prowess in the grandson’s eyes. “Robert would have been inside Winterfell a fortnight ago, thumbing his nose at Bolton from the battlements.”

“Best not mention that to Stannis,” suggested Justin Massey, “or he’ll have us marching nights as well as days.”

This king lives in his brother’s shadow, Asha thought.

Her ankle still gave a stab of pain whenever she tried to put her weight on it. Something was broken down inside, Asha did not doubt. The swelling had gone down at Deepwood, but the pain remained. A sprain would surely have healed by now. Her irons clacked every time she moved. The fetters chafed at her wrists and at her pride. But that was the cost of submission.

“No man has ever died from bending his knee,” her father had once told her. “He who kneels may rise again, blade in hand. He who will not kneel stays dead, stiff legs and all.” Balon Greyjoy had proved the truth of his own words when his first rebellion failed; the kraken bent the knee to stag and direwolf, only to rise again when Robert Baratheon and Eddard Stark were dead.

And so at Deepwood the kraken’s daughter had done the same when she was dumped before the king, bound and limping (though blessedly unraped), her ankle a blaze of pain. “I yield, Your Grace. Do as you wish with me. I ask only that you spare my men.” Qarl and Tris and the rest who had survived the wolfswood were all she had to care about. Only nine remained. We ragged nine, Cromm named them. He was the worst wounded.

Stannis had given her their lives. Yet she sensed no true mercy in the man. He was determined, beyond a doubt. Nor did he lack for courage. Men said he was just … and if his was a harsh, hard-handed sort of justice, well, life on the Iron Islands had accustomed Asha Greyjoy to that. All the same, she could not like this king. Those deep-set blue eyes of his seemed always slitted in suspicion, cold fury boiling just below their surface. Her life meant little and less to him. She was only his hostage, a prize to show the north that he could vanquish the ironborn.

More fool him. Bringing down a woman was not like to awe any northmen, if she knew the breed, and her worth as a hostage was less than naught. Her uncle ruled the Iron Islands now, and the Crow’s Eye would not care if she lived or died. It might matter some to the wretched ruin of a husband that Euron had inflicted upon her, but Eric Ironmaker did not have coin enough to ransom her. But there was no explaining such things to Stannis Baratheon. Her very womanhood seemed to offend him. Men from the green lands liked their women soft and sweet in silk, she knew, not clad in mail and leather with a throwing axe in each hand. But her short acquaintance with the king at Deepwood Motte convinced her that he would have been no more fond of her in a gown. Even with Galbart Glover’s wife, the pious Lady Sybelle, he had been correct and courteous but plainly uncomfortable. This southron king seemed to be one of those men to whom women are another race, as strange and unfathomable as giants and grumkins and the children of the forest. The She-Bear made him grind his teeth as well.

There was only one woman that Stannis listened to, and he had left her on the Wall. “Though I would sooner she was with us,” confessed Ser Justin Massey, the fair-haired knight who commanded the baggage train. “The last time we went into battle without Lady Melisandre was the Blackwater, when Lord Renly’s shade came down upon us and drove half our host into the bay.”

“The last time?” Asha said. “Was this sorceress at Deepwood Motte? I did not see her.”

“Hardly a battle,” Ser Justin said, smiling. “Your ironmen fought bravely, my lady, but we had many times your numbers, and we took you unawares. Winterfell will know that we are coming. And Roose Bolton has as many men as we do.”

Or more, thought Asha.

Even prisoners have ears, and she had heard all the talk at Deepwood Motte, when King Stannis and his captains were debating this march. Ser Justin had opposed it from the start, along with many of the knights and lords who had come with Stannis from the south. But the wolves insisted; Roose Bolton could not be suffered to hold Winterfell, and the Ned’s girl must be rescued from the clutches of his bastard. So said Morgan Liddle, Brandon Norrey, Big Bucket Wull, the Flints, even the She-Bear. “One hundred leagues from Deepwood Motte to Winterfell,” said Artos Flint, the night the argument boiled to a head in Galbart Glover’s longhall. “Three hundred miles as the raven flies.”

“A long march,” a knight named Corliss Penny said.

“Not so long as that,” insisted Ser Godry, the big knight the others called the Giantslayer. “We have come as far already. The Lord of Light will blaze a path for us.”

“And when we arrive before Winterfell?” said Justin Massey. “Two walls with a moat between them, and the inner wall a hundred feet high. Bolton will never march out to face us in the field, and we do not have the provisions to mount a siege.”

“Arnolf Karstark will join his strength to ours, never forget,” said Harwood Fell. “Mors Umber as well. We will have as many northmen as Lord Bolton. And the woods are thick north of the castle. We will raise siege towers, build rams …”

And die by the thousands, Asha thought.

“We might do best to winter here,” suggested Lord Peasebury.

“Winter here?” Big Bucket roared. “How much food and fodder do you think Galbart Glover has laid by?”

Then Ser Richard Horpe, the knight with the ravaged face and the death’s-head moths on his surcoat, turned to Stannis and said, “Your Grace, your brother—”

The king cut him off. “We all know what my brother would do. Robert would gallop up to the gates of Winterfell alone, break them with his warhammer, and ride through the rubble to slay Roose Bolton with his left hand and the Bastard with his right.” Stannis rose to his feet. “I am not Robert. But we will march, and we will free Winterfell … or die in the attempt.”

Whatever doubts his lords might nurse, the common men seemed to have faith in their king. Stannis had smashed Mance Rayder’s wildlings at the Wall and cleaned Asha and her ironborn out of Deepwood Motte; he was Robert’s brother, victor in a famous sea battle off Fair Isle, the man who had held Storm’s End all through Robert’s Rebellion. And he bore a hero’s sword, the enchanted blade Lightbringer, whose glow lit up the night.

“Our foes are not as formidable as they appear,” Ser Justin assured Asha on the first day of the march. “Roose Bolton is feared, but little loved. And his friends the Freys … the north has not forgotten the Red Wedding. Every lord at Winterfell lost kinsmen there. Stannis need only bloody Bolton, and the northmen will abandon him.”

So you hope, thought Asha, but first the king must bloody him. Only a fool deserts the winning side.

Ser Justin called upon her cart half a dozen times that first day, to bring her food and drink and tidings of the march. A man of easy smiles and endless japes, large and well fleshed, with pink cheeks, blue eyes, and a wind-tossed tangle of white-blond hair as pale as flax, he was a considerate gaoler, ever solicitous of his captive’s comfort.

“He wants you,” said the She-Bear, after his third visit.

Her proper name was Alysane of House Mormont, but she wore the other name as easily as she wore her mail. Short, chunky, muscular, the heir to Bear Island had big thighs, big breasts, and big hands ridged with callus. Even in sleep she wore ringmail under her furs, boiled leather under that, and an old sheepskin under the leather, turned inside out for warmth. All those layers made her look almost as wide as she was tall. And ferocious. Sometimes it was hard for Asha Greyjoy to remember that she and the She-Bear were almost of an age.

“He wants my lands,” Asha replied. “He wants the Iron Islands.” She knew the signs. She had seen the same before in other suitors. Massey’s own ancestral holdings, far to the south, were lost to him, so he must needs make an advantageous marriage or resign himself to being no more than a knight of the king’s household. Stannis had frustrated Ser Justin’s hopes of marrying the wildling princess that Asha had heard so much of, so now he had set his sights on her. No doubt he dreamed of putting her in the Seastone Chair on Pyke and ruling through her, as her lord and master. That would require ridding her of her present lord and master, to be sure … not to mention the uncle who had married her to him. Not likely, Asha judged. The Crow’s Eye could eat Ser Justin to break his fast and never even belch.

It made no matter. Her father’s lands would never be hers, no matter whom she married. The ironborn were not a forgiving people, and Asha had been defeated twice. Once at the kingsmoot by her uncle Euron, and again at Deepwood Motte by Stannis. More than enough to stamp her as unfit to rule. Wedding Justin Massey, or any of Stannis Baratheon’s lordlings, would hurt more than it helped. The kraken’s daughter turned out to be just a woman after all, the captains and the kings would say. See how she spreads her legs for this soft green land lord.

Still, if Ser Justin wished to court her favor with food and wine and words, Asha was not like to discourage him. He made for better company than the taciturn She-Bear, and she was elsewise alone amongst five thousand foes. Tris Botley, Qarl the Maid, Cromm, Roggon, and the rest of her bloodied band had been left behind at Deepwood Motte, in Galbart Glover’s dungeons.

The army covered twenty-two miles the first day, by the reckoning of the guides Lady Sybelle had given them, trackers and hunters sworn to Deepwood with clan names like Forrester and Woods, Branch and Bole. The second day the host made twenty-four, as their vanguard passed beyond the Glover lands into the thick of the wolfswood. “R’hllor, send your light to lead us through this gloom,” the faithful prayed that night as they gathered about a roaring blaze outside the king’s pavilion. Southron knights and men-at-arms, the lot of them. Asha would have called them king’s men, but the other stormlanders and crownlands men named them queen’s men … though the queen they followed was the red one at Castle Black, not the wife that Stannis Baratheon had left behind at Eastwatch-by-the-Sea. “Oh, Lord of Light, we beseech you, cast your fiery eye upon us and keep us safe and warm,” they sang to the flames, “for the night is dark and full of terrors.”

A big knight named Ser Godry Farring led them. Godry the Giantslayer. A big name for a small man. Farring was broad-chested and well muscled under his plate and mail. He was also arrogant and vain, it seemed to Asha, hungry for glory, deaf to caution, a glutton for praise, and contemptuous of smallfolk, wolves, and women. In the last, he was not unlike his king.

“Let me have a horse,” Asha asked Ser Justin, when he rode up to the wayn with half a ham. “I am going mad in these chains. I will not attempt escape. You have my word on that.”

“Would that I could, my lady. You are the king’s captive, not mine own.”

“Your king will not take a woman’s word.”

The She-Bear growled. “Why should we trust the word of any ironman after what your brother did at Winterfell?”

“I am not Theon,” Asha insisted … but the chains remained.

As Ser Justin galloped down the column, she found herself remembering the last time she had seen her mother. It had been on Harlaw, at Ten Towers. A candle had been flickering in her mother’s chamber, but her great carved bed was empty beneath its dusty canopy. Lady Alannys sat beside a window, staring out across the sea. “Did you bring my baby boy?” she’d asked, mouth trembling. “Theon could not come,” Asha had told her, looking down upon the ruin of the woman who had given her birth, a mother who had lost two of her sons. And the third …

I send you each a piece of prince.

Whatever befell when battle was joined at Winterfell, Asha Greyjoy did not think her brother likely to survive it. Theon Turncloak. Even the She-Bear wants his head on a spike.

“Do you have brothers?” Asha asked her keeper.

“Sisters,” Alysane Mormont replied, gruff as ever. “Five, we were. All girls. Lyanna is back on Bear Island. Lyra and Jory are with our mother. Dacey was murdered.”

“The Red Wedding.”

“Aye.” Alysane stared at Asha for a moment. “I have a son. He’s only two. My daughter’s nine.”

“You started young.”

“Too young. But better that than wait too late.”

A stab at me, Asha thought, but let it be. “You are wed.”

“No. My children were fathered by a bear.” Alysane smiled. Her teeth were crooked, but there was something ingratiating about that smile. “Mormont women are skinchangers. We turn into bears and find mates in the woods. Everyone knows.”

Asha smiled back. “Mormont women are all fighters too.”

The other woman’s smile faded. “What we are is what you made us. On Bear Island every child learns to fear krakens rising from the sea.”

The Old Way. Asha turned away, chains clinking faintly. On the third day the forest pressed close around them, and the rutted roads dwindled down to game trails that soon proved to be too narrow for their larger wagons. Here and there they wound their way past familiar landmarks: a stony hill that looked a bit like a wolf’s head when seen from a certain angle, a half-frozen waterfall, a natural stone arch bearded with grey-green moss. Asha knew them all. She had come this way before, riding to Winterfell to persuade her brother Theon to abandon his conquest and return with her to the safety of Deepwood Motte. I failed in that as well.

That day they made fourteen miles, and were glad of it.

When dusk fell, the driver pulled the wayn off under the tree. As he was loosing the horses from the traces, Ser Justin trotted up and undid the fetters around Asha’s ankles. He and the She-Bear escorted her through the camp to the king’s tent. A captive she might be, but she was still a Greyjoy of Pyke, and it pleased Stannis Baratheon to feed her scraps from his own table, where he supped with his captains and commanders.

The king’s pavilion was near as large as the longhall back at Deepwood Motte, but there was little grand about it beyond its size. Its stiff walls of heavy yellow canvas were badly faded, stained by mud and water, with spots of mildew showing. Atop its center pole flew the royal standard, golden, with a stag’s head within a burning heart. On three sides the pavilions of the southron lordlings who had come north with Stannis surrounded it. On the fourth side the nightfire roared, lashing at the darkening sky with swirls of flame.

A dozen men were splitting logs to feed the blaze when Asha came limping up with her keepers. Queen’s men. Their god was Red R’hllor, and a jealous god he was. Her own god, the Drowned God of the Iron Isles, was a demon to their eyes, and if she did not embrace this Lord of Light, she would be damned and doomed. They would as gladly burn me as those logs and broken branches. Some had urged that very thing within her hearing after the battle in the woods. Stannis had refused.

The king stood outside his tent, staring i............
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