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Day stole upon them just as Stannis had: unseen.

Winterfell had been awake for hours, its battlements and towers crammed with men in wool and mail and leather awaiting an attack that never came. By the time the sky began to lighten the sound of drums had faded away, though warhorns were heard thrice more, each time a little closer. And still the snow fell.

“The storm will end today,” one of the surviving stableboys was insisting loudly. “Why, it isn’t even winter.” Theon would have laughed if he had dared. He remembered tales Old Nan had told them of storms that raged for forty days and forty nights, for a year, for ten years … storms that buried castles and cities and whole kingdoms under a hundred feet of snow.

He sat in the back of the Great Hall, not far from the horses, watching Abel, Rowan, and a mousy brown-haired washerwoman called Squirrel attack slabs of stale brown bread fried in bacon grease. Theon broke his own fast with a tankard of dark ale, cloudy with yeast and thick enough to chew on. A few more tankards, and perhaps Abel’s plan might not seem quite so mad.

Roose Bolton entered, pale-eyed and yawning, accompanied by his plump and pregnant wife, Fat Walda. Several lords and captains had preceded him, amongst them Whoresbane Umber, Aenys Frey, and Roger Ryswell. Farther down the table Wyman Manderly sat wolfing down sausages and boiled eggs, whilst old Lord Locke beside him spooned gruel into his toothless mouth.

Lord Ramsay soon appeared as well, buckling on his sword belt as he made his way to the front of the hall. His mood is foul this morning. Theon could tell. The drums kept him awake all night, he guessed, or someone has displeased him. One wrong word, an ill-considered look, an ill-timed laugh, any of them could provoke his lordship’s wroth and cost a man a strip of skin. Please, m’lord, don’t look this way. One glance would be all it would take for Ramsay to know everything. He’ll see it written on my face. He’ll know. He always knows.

Theon turned to Abel. “This will not work.” His voice was pitched so low that even the horses could not have overheard. “We will be caught before we leave the castle. Even if we do escape, Lord Ramsay will hunt us down, him and Ben Bones and the girls.”

“Lord Stannis is outside the walls, and not far by the sound of it. All we need do is reach him.” Abel’s fingers danced across the strings of his lute. The singer’s beard was brown, though his long hair had largely gone to grey. “If the Bastard does come after us, he might live long enough to rue it.”

Think that, Theon thought. Believe that. Tell yourself it’s true. “Ramsay will use your women as his prey,” he told the singer. “He’ll hunt them down, rape them, and feed their corpses to his dogs. If they lead him a good chase, he may name his next litter of bitches after them. You he’ll flay. Him and Skinner and Damon Dance-for-Me, they will make a game of it. You’ll be begging them to kill you.” He clutched the singer’s arm with a maimed hand. “You swore you would not let me fall into his hands again. I have your word on that.” He needed to hear it again.

“Abel’s word,” said Squirrel. “Strong as oak.” Abel himself only shrugged. “No matter what, my prince.”

Up on the dais, Ramsay was arguing with his father. They were too far away for Theon to make out any of the words, but the fear on Fat Walda’s round pink face spoke volumes. He did hear Wyman Manderly calling for more sausages and Roger Ryswell’s laughter at some jape from one-armed Harwood Stout.

Theon wondered if he would ever see the Drowned God’s watery halls, or if his ghost would linger here at Winterfell. Dead is dead. Better dead than Reek. If Abel’s scheme went awry, Ramsay would make their dying long and hard. He will flay me from head to heel this time, and no amount of begging will end the anguish. No pain Theon had ever known came close to the agony that Skinner could evoke with a little flensing blade. Abel would learn that lesson soon enough. And for what? Jeyne, her name is Jeyne, and her eyes are the wrong color. A mummer playing a part. Lord Bolton knows, and Ramsay, but the rest are blind, even this bloody bard with his sly smiles. The jape is on you, Abel, you and your murdering whores. You’ll die for the wrong girl.

He had come this close to telling them the truth when Rowan had delivered him to Abel in the ruins of the Burned Tower, but at the last instant he had held his tongue. The singer seemed intent on making off with the daughter of Eddard Stark. If he knew that Lord Ramsay’s bride was but a steward’s whelp, well …

The doors of the Great Hall opened with a crash.

A cold wind came swirling through, and a cloud of ice crystals sparkled blue-white in the air. Through it strode Ser Hosteen Frey, caked with snow to the waist, a body in his arms. All along the benches men put down their cups and spoons to turn and gape at the grisly spectacle. The hall grew quiet.

Another murder.

Snow slid from Ser Hosteen’s cloaks as he stalked toward the high table, his steps ringing against the floor. A dozen Frey knights and men-at-arms entered behind him. One was a boy Theon knew—Big Walder, the little one, fox-faced and skinny as a stick. His chest and arms and cloak were spattered with blood.

The scent of it set the horses to screaming. Dogs slid out from under the tables, sniffing. Men rose from the benches. The body in Ser Hosteen’s arms sparkled in the torchlight, armored in pink frost. The cold outside had frozen his blood.

“My brother Merrett’s son.” Hosteen Frey lowered the body to the floor before the dais. “Butchered like a hog and shoved beneath a snowbank. A boy.”

Little Walder, thought Theon. The big one. He glanced at Rowan. There are six of them, he remembered. Any of them could have done this. But the washerwoman felt his eyes. “This was no work of ours,” she said.

“Be quiet,” Abel warned her.

Lord Ramsay descended from the dais to the dead boy. His father rose more slowly, pale-eyed, still-faced, solemn. “This was foul work.” For once Roose Bolton’s voice was loud enough to carry. “Where was the body found?”

“Under that ruined keep, my lord,” replied Big Walder. “The one with the old gargoyles.” The boy’s gloves were caked with his cousin’s blood. “I told him not to go out alone, but he said he had to find a man who owed him silver.”

“What man?” Ramsay demanded. “Give me his name. Point him out to me, boy, and I will make you a cloak of his skin.”

“He never said, my lord. Only that he won the coin at dice.” The Frey boy hesitated. “It was some White Harbor men who taught dice. I couldn’t say which ones, but it was them.”

“My lord,” boomed Hosteen Frey. “We know the man who did this. Killed this boy and all the rest. Not by his own hand, no. He is too fat and craven to do his own killing. But by his word.” He turned to Wyman Manderly. “Do you deny it?”

The Lord of White Harbor bit a sausage in half. “I confess …” He wiped the grease from his lips with his sleeve. “… I confess that I know little of this poor boy. Lord Ramsay’s squire, was he not? How old was the lad?”

“Nine, on his last nameday.”

“So young,” said Wyman Manderly. “Though mayhaps this was a blessing. Had he lived, he would have grown up to be a Frey.”

Ser Hosteen slammed his foot into the tabletop, knocking it off its trestles, back into Lord Wyman’s swollen belly. Cups and platters flew, sausages scattered everywhere, and a dozen Manderly men came cursing to their feet. Some grabbed up knives, platters, flagons, anything that might serve as a weapon.

Ser Hosteen Frey ripped his longsword from its scabbard and leapt toward Wyman Manderly. The Lord of White Harbor tried to jerk away, but the tabletop pinned him to his chair. The blade slashed through three of his four chins in a spray of bright red blood. Lady Walda gave a shriek and clutched at her lord husband’s arm. “Stop,” Roose Bolton shouted. “Stop this madness.” His own men rushed forward as the Manderlys vaulted over the benches to get at the Freys. One lunged at Ser Hosteen with a dagger, but the big knight pivoted and took his arm off at the shoulder. Lord Wyman pushed to his feet, only to collapse. Old Lord Locke was shouting for a maester as Manderly flopped on the floor like a clubbed walrus in a spreading pool of blood. Around him dogs fought over sausages.

It took two score Dreadfort spearmen to part the combatants and put an end to the carnage. By that time six White Harbor men and two Freys lay dead upon the floor. A dozen more were wounded and one of the Bastard’s Boys, Luton, was dying noisily, crying for his mother as he tried to shove a fistful of slimy entrails back through a gaping belly wound. Lord Ramsay silenced him, yanking a spear from one of Steelshanks’s men and driving it down through Luton’s chest. Even then the rafters still rang with shouts and prayers and curses, the shrieks of terrified horses and the growls of Ramsay’s bitches. Steelshanks Walton had to slam the butt of his spear against the floor a dozen times before the hall quieted enough for Roose Bolton to be heard.

“I see you all want blood,” the Lord of the Dreadfort said. Maester Rhodry stood beside him, a raven on his arm. The bird’s black plumage shone like coal oil in the torchlight. Wet, Theon realized. And in his lordship’s hand, a parchment. That will be wet as well. Dark wings, dark words. “Rather than use our swords upon each other, you might try them on Lord Stannis.” Lord Bolton unrolled the parchment. “His host lies not three days’ ride from here, snowbound and starving, and I for one am tired of waiting on his pleasure. Ser Hosteen, assemble your knights and men-at-arms by the main gates. As you are so eager for battle, you shall strike our first blow. Lord Wyman, gather your White Harbor men by the east gate. They shall go forth as well.”

Hosteen Frey’s sword was red almost to the hilt. Blood spatters speckled his cheeks like freckles. He lowered his blade and said, “As my lord commands. But after I deliver you the head of Stannis Baratheon, I mean to finish hacking off Lord Lard’s.”

Four White Harbor knights had formed a ring around Lord Wyman, as Maester Medrick labored over him to staunch his bleeding. “First you must needs come through us, ser,” said the eldest of them, a hard-faced greybeard whose bloodstained surcoat showed three silvery mermaids upon a violet field.

“Gladly. One at a time or all at once, it makes no matter.”

“Enough,” roared Lord Ramsay, brandishing his bloody spear. “Another threat, and I’ll gut you all myself. My lord father has spoken! Save your wroth for the pretender Stannis.”

Roose Bolton gave an approving nod. “As he says. There will be time enough to fight each other once we are done with Stannis.” He turned his head, his pale cold eyes searching the hall until they found the bard Abel beside Theon. “Singer,” he called, “come sing us something soothing.”

Abel bowed. “If it please your lordship.” Lute in hand, he sauntered to the dais, hopping nimbly over a corpse or two, and seated himself cross-legged on the high table. As he began to play—a sad, soft song that Theon Greyjoy did not recognize—Ser Hosteen, Ser Aenys, and their fellow Freys turned away to lead their horses from the hall.

Rowan grasped Theon’s arm. “The bath. It must be now.”

He wrenched free of her touch. “By day? We will be seen.”

“The snow will hide us. Are you deaf? Bolton is sending forth his swords. We have to reach King Stannis before they do.”

“But … Abel …”

“Abel can fend for himself,” murmured Squirrel.

This is madness. Hopeless, foolish, doomed. Theon drained the last dregs of his ale and rose reluctantly to his feet. “Find your sisters. It takes a deal of water to fill my lady’s tub.”

Squirrel slipped away, soft-footed as she always was. Rowan walked Theon from the hall. Since she and her sisters had found him in the godswood, one of them had dogged his every step, never letting him out of sight. They did not trust him. Why should they? I was Reek before and might be Reek again. Reek, Reek, it rhymes with sneak.

Outside the snow still fell. The snowmen the squires had built had grown into monstrous giants, ten feet tall and hideously misshapen. White walls rose to either side as he and Rowan made their way to the godswood; the paths between keep and tower and hall had turned into a maze of icy trenches, shoveled out hourly to keep them clear. It was easy to get lost in that frozen labyrinth, but Theon Greyjoy knew every twist and turning.

Even the godswood was turning white. A film of ice had formed upon the pool beneath the heart tree, and the face carved into its pale trunk had grown a mustache of little icicles. At this hour they could not hope to have the old gods to themselves. Rowan pulled Theon away from the northmen praying before the tree, to a secluded spot back by the barracks wall, beside a pool of warm mud that stank of rotten eggs. Even the mud was icing up about the edges, Theon saw. “Winter is coming …”

Rowan gave him a hard look. “You have no right to mouth Lord Eddard’s words. Not you. Not ever. After what you did—”

“You killed a boy as well.”

“That was not us. I told you.”

“Words are wind.” They are no better than me. We’re just the same. “You killed the others, why not him? Yellow Dick—”

“—stank as bad as you. A pig of a man.”

“And Little Walder was a piglet. Killing him brought the Freys and Manderlys to dagger points, that was cunning, you—”

“Not us.” Rowan grabbed him by the throat and shoved him back against the barracks wall, her face an inch from his. “Say it again and I will rip your lying tongue out, kinslayer.”

He smiled through his broken teeth. “You won’t. You need my tongue to get you past the guards. You need my lies.”

Rowan spat in his face. Then she let him go and wiped her gloved hands on her legs, as if just touching him had soiled her.

Theon knew he should not goad her. In her own way, this one was as dangerous as Skinner or Damon Dance-for-Me. But he was cold and tired, his head was pounding, he had not slept in days. “I have done terrible things … betrayed my own, turned my cloak, ordered the death of men who trusted me … but I am no kinslayer.”

“Stark’s boys were never brothers to you, aye. We know.”

That was true, but it was not what Theon had meant. They were not my blood, but even so, I never harmed them. The two we killed were just some miller’s sons. Theon did not want to think about their mother. He had known the miller’s wife for years, had even bedded her. Big heavy breasts with wide dark nipples, a sweet mouth, a merry laugh. Joys that I will never taste again.

But there was no use telling Rowan any of that. She would never believe his denials, any more than he believed hers. “There is blood on my hands, but not the blood of brothers,” he said wearily. “And I’ve been punished.”

“Not enough.” Rowan turned her back on him.

Foolish woman. He might well be a broken thing, but Theon still wore a dagger. It would have been a simple thing to slide it out and drive it down between her shoulder blades. That much he was still capable of, missing teeth and broken teeth and all. It might even be a kindness—a quicker, cleaner end than the one she and her sisters would face when Ramsay caught them.

Reek might have done it. Would have done it, in hopes it might please Lord Ramsay. These whores meant to steal Ramsay’s bride; Reek could not allow that. But the old gods had known him, had called him Theon. Ironborn, I was ironborn, Balon Greyjoy’s son and rightful heir to Pyke. The stumps of his fingers itched and twitched, but he kept his dagger in its sheath.

When Squirrel returned, the other four were with her: gaunt grey-haired Myrtle, Willow Witch-Eye with her long black braid, Frenya of the thick waist and enormous breasts, Holly with her knife. Clad as serving girls in layers of drab grey roughspun, they wore brown woolen cloaks lined with white rabbit fur. No swords, Theon saw. No axes, no hammers, no weapons but knives. Holly’s cloak was fastened with a silver clasp, and Frenya had a girdle of hempen rope wound about her middle from her hips to breasts. It made her look even more massive than she was.

Myrtle had servant’s garb for Rowan. “The yards are crawling with fools,” she warned them. “They mean to ride out.”

“Kneelers,” said Willow, with a snort of contempt. “Their lordly lord spoke, they must obey.”

“They’re going to die,” chirped Holly, happily.

“Them and us,” said Theon. “Even if we do get past the guards, how do you mean to get Lady Arya out?”

Holly smiled. “Six women go in, six come out. Who looks at serving girls? We’ll dress the Stark girl up as Squirrel.”

Theon glanced at Squirrel. They are almost of a size. It might work. “And how does Squirrel get out?”

Squirrel answered for herself. “Out a window, and straight down to the godswood. I was twelve the first time my brother took me raiding south o’ your Wall. That’s where I got my name. My brother said I looked like a squirrel running up a tree. I’ve done that Wall six times since, over and back again. I think I can climb down some stone tower.”

“Happy, turncloak?” Rowan asked. “Let’s be about it.”............
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