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THE SACRIFICE
On the village green, the queen’s men built their pyre.

Or should it be the village white? The snow was knee deep everywhere but where the men had shoveled it away, to hack holes into the frozen ground with axe and spade and pick. The wind was swirling from the west, driving still more snow across the frozen surface of the lakes.

“You do not want to watch this,” Aly Mormont said.

“No, but I will.” Asha Greyjoy was the kraken’s daughter, not some pampered maiden who could not bear to look at ugliness.

It had been a dark, cold, hungry day, like the day before and the day before that. They had spent most of it out on the ice, shivering beside a pair of holes they’d cut in the smaller of the frozen lakes, with fishing lines clutched in mitten-clumsy hands. Not long ago, they could count on hooking one or two fish apiece, and wolfswood men more practiced at ice-fishing were pulling up four or five. Today all that Asha had come back with was a chill that went bone deep. Aly had fared no better. It had been three days since either of them had caught a fish.

The She-Bear tried again. “I do not need to watch this.”

It is not you the queen’s men want to burn. “Then go. You have my word, I will not run. Where would I go? To Winterfell?” Asha laughed. “Only three days’ ride, they tell me.”

Six queen’s men were wrestling two enormous pinewood poles into holes six other queen’s men had dug out. Asha did not have to ask their purpose. She knew. Stakes. Nightfall would be on them soon, and the red god must be fed. An offering of blood and fire, the queen’s men called it, that the Lord of Light may turn his fiery eye upon us and melt these thrice-cursed snows.

“Even in this place of fear and darkness, the Lord of Light protects us,” Ser Godry Farring told the men who gathered to watch as the stakes were hammered down into the holes.

“What has your southron god to do with snow?” demanded Artos Flint. His black beard was crusted with ice. “This is the wroth of the old gods come upon us. It is them we should appease.”

“Aye,” said Big Bucket Wull. “Red Rahloo means nothing here. You will only make the old gods angry. They are watching from their island.”

The crofter’s village stood between two lakes, the larger dotted with small wooded islands that punched up through the ice like the frozen fists of some drowned giant. From one such island rose a weirwood gnarled and ancient, its bole and branches white as the surrounding snows. Eight days ago Asha had walked out with Aly Mormont to have a closer look at its slitted red eyes and bloody mouth. It is only sap, she’d told herself, the red sap that flows inside these weirwoods. But her eyes were unconvinced; seeing was believing, and what they saw was frozen blood.

“You northmen brought these snows upon us,” insisted Corliss Penny. “You and your demon trees. R’hllor will save us.”

“R’hllor will doom us,” said Artos Flint.

A pox on both your gods, thought Asha Greyjoy.

Ser Godry the Giantslayer surveyed the stakes, shoving one to make certain it was firmly placed. “Good. Good. They will serve. Ser Clayton, bring forth the sacrifice.”

Ser Clayton Suggs was Godry’s strong right hand. Or should it be his withered arm? Asha did not like Ser Clayton. Where Farring seemed fierce in his devotion to his red god, Suggs was simply cruel. She had seen him at the nightfires, watching, his lips parted and his eyes avid. It is not the god he loves, it is the flames, she concluded. When she asked Ser Justin if Suggs had always been that way, he grimaced. “On Dragonstone he would gamble with the torturers and lend them a hand in the questioning of prisoners, especially if the prisoner were a young woman.”

Asha was not surprised. Suggs would take a special delight in burning her, she did not doubt. Unless the storms let up.

They had been three days from Winterfell for nineteen days. One hundred leagues from Deepwood Motte to Winterfell. Three hundred miles as the raven flies. But none of them were ravens, and the storm was unrelenting. Each morning Asha awoke hoping she might see the sun, only to face another day of snow. The storm had buried every hut and hovel beneath a mound of dirty snow, and the drifts would soon be deep enough to engulf the longhall too.

And there was no food, beyond their failing horses, fish taken from the lakes (fewer every day), and whatever meagre sustenance their foragers could find in these cold, dead woods. With the king’s knights and lords claiming the lion’s share of the horsemeat, little and less remained for the common men. Small wonder then that they had started eating their own dead.

Asha had been as horrified as the rest when the She-Bear told her that four Peasebury men had been found butchering one of the late Lord Fell’s, carving chunks of flesh from his thighs and buttocks as one of his forearms turned upon a spit, but she could not pretend to be surprised. The four were not the first to taste human flesh during this grim march, she would wager—only the first to be discovered.

Peasebury’s four would pay for their feast with their lives, by the king’s decree … and by burning end the storm, the queen’s men claimed. Asha Greyjoy put no faith in their red god, yet she prayed they had the right of that. If not, there would be other pyres, and Ser Clayton Suggs might get his heart’s desire.

The four flesh-eaters were naked when Ser Clayton drove them out, their wrists lashed behind their backs with leathern cords. The youngest of them wept as he stumbled through the snow. Two others walked like men already dead, eyes fixed upon the ground. Asha was surprised to see how ordinary they appeared. Not monsters, she realized, only men.

The oldest of the four had been their serjeant. He alone remained defiant, spitting venom at the queen’s men as they prodded him along with their spears. “Fuck you all, and fuck your red god too,” he said. “You hear me, Farring? Giantslayer? I laughed when your fucking cousin died, Godry. We should have eaten him too, he smelled so good when they roasted him. I bet the boy was nice and tender. Juicy.” A blow from a spear butt drove the man to his knees but did not silence him. When he rose he spat out a mouthful of blood and broken teeth and went right on. “The cock’s the choicest part, all crisped up on the spit. A fat little sausage.” Even as they wrapped the chains around him, he raved on. “Corliss Penny, come over here. What sort of name is Penny? Is that how much your mother charged? And you, Suggs, you bleeding bastard, you—”

Ser Clayton never said a word. One quick slash opened the serjeant’s throat, sending a wash of blood down his chest.

The weeping man wept harder, his body shaking with each sob. He was so thin that Asha could count every rib. “No,” he begged, “please, he was dead, he was dead and we was hungry, please …”

“The serjeant was the clever one,” Asha said to Aly Mormont. “He goaded Suggs into killing him.” She wondered if the same trick might work twice, should her own turn come.

The four victims were chained up back-to-back, two to a stake. There they hung, three live men and one dead one, as the Lord of Light’s devout stacked split logs and broken branches under their feet, then doused the piles with lamp oil. They had to be swift about it. The snow was falling heavily, as ever, and the wood would soon be soaked through.

“Where is the king?” asked Ser Corliss Penny.

Four days ago, one of the king’s own squires had succumbed to cold and hunger, a boy named Bryen Farring who’d been kin to Ser Godry. Stannis Baratheon stood grim-faced by the funeral pyre as the lad’s body was consigned to the flames. Afterward the king had retreated to his watchtower. He had not emerged since … though from time to time His Grace was glimpsed upon the tower roof, outlined against the beacon fire that burned there night and day. Talking to the red god, some said. Calling out for Lady Melisandre, insisted others. Either way, it seemed to Asha Greyjoy, the king was lost and crying out for help.

“Canty, go find the king and tell him all is ready,” Ser Godry said to the nearest man-at-arms.

“The king is here.” The voice was Richard Horpe’s.

Over his armor of plate and mail Ser Richard wore his quilted doublet, blazoned with three death’s-head moths on a field of ash and bone. King Stannis walked beside him. Behind them, struggling to keep pace, Arnolf Karstark came hobbling, leaning on his blackthorn cane. Lord Arnolf had found them eight days past. The northman had brought a son, three grandsons, four hundred spears, two score archers, a dozen mounted lances, a maester, and a cage of ravens … but only enough provisions to sustain his own.

Karstark was no lord in truth, Asha had been given to understand, only castellan of Karhold for as long as the true lord remained a captive of the Lannisters. Gaunt and bent and crooked, with a left shoulder half a foot higher than his right, he had a scrawny neck, squinty grey eyes, and yellow teeth. A few white hairs were all that separated him from baldness; his forked beard was equal parts white and grey, but always ragged. Asha thought there was something sour about his smiles. Yet if the talk was true, it was Karstark who would hold Winterfell should they take it. Somewhere in the distant past House Karstark had sprouted from House Stark, and Lord Arnolf had been the first of Eddard Stark’s bannermen to declare for Stannis.

So far as Asha knew, the gods of the Karstarks were the old gods of the north, gods they shared with the Wulls, the Norreys, the Flints, and the other hill clans. She wondered if Lord Arnolf had come to view the burning at the king’s behest, that he might witness the power of the red god for himself.

At the sight of Stannis, two of the men bound to the stakes began to plead for mercy. The king listened in silence, his jaw clenched. Then he said to Godry Farring, “You may begin.”

The Giantslayer raised his arms. “Lord of Light, hear us.”

“Lord of Light, defend us,” the queen’s men chanted, “for the night is dark and full of terrors.”

Ser Godry raised his head toward the darkening sky. “We thank you for the sun that warms us and pray that you will return it to us, Oh lord, that it might light our path to your enemies.” Snowflakes melted on his face. “We thank you for the stars that watch over us by night, and pray that you will rip away this veil that hides them, so we might glory in their sight once more.”

“Lord of Light, protect us,” the queen’s men prayed, “and keep this savage dark at bay.”

Ser Corliss Penny stepped forward, clutching the torch with both hands. He swung it about his head in a circle, fanning the flames. One of the captives began to whimper.

“R’hllor,” Ser Godry sang, “we give you now four evil men. With glad hearts and true, we give them to your cleansing fires, that the darkness in their souls might be burned away. Let their vile flesh be seared and blackened, that their spirits might rise free and pure to ascend into the light. Accept their blood, Oh lord, and melt the icy chains that bind your servants. Hear their pain, and grant strength to our swords that we might shed the blood of your enemies. Accept this sacrifice, and show us the way to Winterfell, that we might vanquish the unbelievers.”

“Lord of Light, accept this sacrifice,” a hundred voices echoed. Ser Corliss lit the first pyre with the torch, then thrust it into the wood at the base of the second. A few wisps of smoke began to rise. The captives began to cough. The first flames appeared, shy as maidens, darting and dancing from log to leg. In moments both the stakes were engulfed in fire.

“He was dead,” the weeping boy screamed, as the flames licked up his legs. “We found him dead … please … we was hungry …” The fires reached his balls. As the hair around his cock began to burn, his pleading dissolved into one long wordless shriek.

Asha Greyjoy could taste the bile in the back of her throat. On the Iron Islands, she had seen priests of her own people slit the throats of thralls and give their bodies to the sea to honor the Drowned God. Brutal as that was, this was worse.

Close your eyes, she told herself. Close your ears. Turn away. You do not need to see this. The queen’s men were singing some paean of praise for red R’hllor, but she could not hear the words above the shrieks. The heat of the flames beat against her face, but even so she shivered. The air grew thick with smoke and the stink of burnt flesh, and one of the bodies still twitched against the red-hot chains that bound him to the stake.

After a time the screaming stopped.

Wordless, King Stannis walked away, back to the solitude of his watchtower. Back to his beacon fire, Asha knew, to search the flames for answers. Arnolf Karstark made to hobble after him, but Ser Richard Horpe took him by the arm and turned him toward the longhall. The watchers began to drift away, each to his own fire and whatever meagre supper he might find.

Clayton Suggs sidled up beside her. “Did the iron cunt enjoy the show?” His breath stank of ale and onions. He has pig eyes, Asha thought. That was fitting; his shield and surcoat showed a pig with wings. Suggs pressed his face so close to hers that she could count the blackheads on his nose and said, “The crowd will be even bigger when it’s you squirming on a stake.”

He was not wrong. The wolves did not love her; she was ironborn and must answer for the crimes of her people, for Moat Cailin and Deepwood Motte and Torrhen’s Square, for centuries of reaving along the stony shore, for all Theon did at Winterfell.

“Unhand me, ser.” Every time Suggs spoke to her, it left her yearning for her axes. Asha was as good a finger dancer as any man on the isles and had ten fingers to prove it. If only I could dance with this one. Some men had faces that cried out for a beard. Ser Clayton’s face cried out for an axe between the eyes. But she was axeless here, so the best that she could do was try to wrench away. That just made Ser Clayton grasp her all the tighter, gloved fingers digging into her arm like iron claws.

“My lady asked you to let her go,” said Aly Mormont. “You would do well to listen, ser. Lady Asha is not for burning.”

“She will be,” Suggs insisted. “We have harbored this demon worshiper amongst us too long.” He released his grip on Asha’s arm all the same. One did not provoke the She-Bear needlessly.

That was the moment Justin Massey chose to appear. “The king has other plans for his prize captive,” he said, with his easy smile. His cheeks were red from the cold.

“The king? Or you?” Suggs snorted his contempt. “Scheme all you like, Massey. She’ll still be for the fire, her and her king’s blood. There’s power in king’s blood, the red woman used to say. Power to please our lord.”

“Let R’hllor be content with the four we just sent him.”

“Four baseborn churls. A beggar’s offering. Scum like that will never stop the snow. She might.”

The She-Bear spoke. “And if you burn her and the snows still fall, what then? Who will you burn next? Me?”

Asha could hold her tongue no longer. “Why not Ser Clayton? Perhaps R’hllor would like one of his own. A faithful man who will sing his praises as the flames lick at his cock.”

Ser Justin laughed. Suggs was less amused. “Enjoy your giggle, Massey. If the snow keeps falling, we will see who is laughing then.” He glanced at the dead men on their stakes, smiled, and went off to join Ser Godry and the other queen’s men.

“My champion,” Asha said to Justin Massey. He deserved that much, whatever his motives. “Thank you for the rescue, ser.”

“It will not win you friends amongst the queen’s men,” said the She-Bear. “Have you lost your faith in red R’hllor?”

“I have lost faith in more than that,” Massey said, his breath a pale mist in the air, “but I still believe in supper. Will you join me, my ladies?”

Aly Mormont shook her head. “I have no appetite.”

“Nor I. But you had best choke down some horsemeat all the same, or you may soon wish you had. We had eight hundred horses when we mar............
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