Another knight, Theon knew, when Massey entered. This one was fair,
with a neatly trimmed blond beard and thick straight hair so pale it seemed more
white than gold. His tunic bore the triple spiral, an ancient sigil for an ancient House.
"I was told Your Grace had need of me," he said, from one knee.
Stannis nodded. "You will escort the Braavosi banker back to the Wall. Choose six good men and take twelve horses."
"To ride or eat?"
The king was not amused. "I want you gone before midday, ser. Lord Bolton could be on us any moment, and it is imperative that the banker return to Braavos. You shall accompany him across the narrow sea."
"If there is to be a battle, my place is here with you."
"Your place is where I say it is. I have five hundred swords as good as you, or better, but you have a pleasing manner and a glib tongue, and those will be of more use to me at Braavos then here. The Iron Bank has opened its coffers to me. You will collect their coin and hire ships and sellswords. A company of good repute, if you can find one. The Golden Company would be my first choice, if they are not already under contract. Seek for them in the Disputed Lands, if need be. But first hire as many swords as you can find in Braavos, and send them to me by way of Eastwatch. Archers as well, we need more bows."
Ser Justin's hair had fallen down across one eye. He pushed it back and said, "The captains of the free companies will join a lord more readily than a mere knight, Your Grace. I hold neither lands nor title, why should they sell their swords to me?"
"Go to them with both fists full of golden dragons," the king said, in an acid tone. "That should prove persuasive. Twenty thousand men should suffice. Do not return with fewer."
"Sire, might I speak freely?"
"So long as you speak quickly."
"Your Grace should go to Braavos with the banker."
"Is that your counsel? That I should flee?" The king's face darkened. "That was your counsel on the Blackwater as well, as I recall. When the battle turned against us, I let you and Horpe chivvy me back to Dragonstone like a whipped cur."
"The day was lost, Your Grace."
"Aye, that was what you said. 'The day is lost, sire. Fall back now, that you may fight again.' And now you would have me scamper off across the narrow sea... "
"... to raise an army, aye. As Bittersteel did after the Battle of the Redgrass Field, where Daemon Blackfyre fell."
"Do not prate at me of history, ser. Daemon Blackfyre was a rebel and usurper, Bittersteel a bastard. When he fled, he swore he would return to place a son of Daemon's upon the Iron Throne. He never did. Words are wind, and the wind that blows exiles across the narrow sea seldom blows them back. That boy Viserys Targaryen spoke of return as well. He slipped through my fingers at Dragonstone, only to spend his life wheedling after sellswords. 'The Beggar King,' they called him in the Free Cities. Well, I do not beg, nor will I flee again. I am Robert's heir, the rightful king of Westeros. My place is with my men. Yours is in Braavos. Go with the banker, and do as I have bid."
"As you command," Ser Justin said.
"It may be that we shall lose this battle," the king said grimly. "In Braavos you may hear that I am dead. It may even be true. You shall find my sellswords nonetheless."
The knight hesitated. "Your Grace, if you are dead — "
" — you will avenge my death, and seat my daughter on the Iron Throne. Or die in the attempt."
Ser Justin put one hand on his sword hilt. "On my honor as a knight, you have my word."
"Oh, and take the Stark girl with you. Deliver her to Lord Commander Snow on your way to Eastwatch." Stannis tapped the parchment that lay before him. "A true king pays his debts."
Pay it, aye, thought Theon. Pay it with false coin. Jon Snow would see through the impostesure at once. Lord Stark's sullen bastard had known Jeyne Poole, and he had always been fond of his little half-sister Arya.
"The black brothers will accompany you as far as Castle Black," the king went on. "The ironmen are to remain here, supposedly to fight for us. Another gift from Tycho Nestoris. Just as well, they would only slow you down. Ironmen were made for ships, not horses. Lady Arya should have a female companion as well. Take Alysane Mormont."
Ser Justin pushed back his hair again. "And Lady Asha?"
The king considered that a moment. "No."
"One day Your Grace will need to take the Iron Islands. That will go much easier with Balon Greyjoy's daughter as a catspaw, with one of your own leal men as her lord husband."
"You?" The king scowled. "The woman is wed, Justin."
"A proxy marriage, never consummated. Easily set aside. The groom is old besides. Like to die soon."
From a sword through his belly if you have your way, ser worm. Theon knew how these knights thought.
Stannis pressed his lips together. "Serve me well in this matter of the sellswords, and you may have what you desire. Until such time, the woman must needs remain my captive."
Ser Justin bowed his head. "I understand."
That only seemed to irritate the king. "Your understanding is not required. Only your obedience. Be on your way, ser."
This time, when the knight took his leave, the world beyond the door seemed more white than black.
Stannis Baratheon paced the floor. The tower was a small one, dank and cramped. A few steps brought the king around to Theon. "How many men does Bolton have at Winterfell?"
"Five thousand. Six. More." He gave the king a ghastly grin, all shattered teeth and splinters. "More than you."
"How many of those is he like to send against us?"
"No more than half." That was a guess, admittedly, but it felt right to him. Roose Bolton was not a man to blunder blindly out into the snow, map or no. He would hold his main strength in reserve, keep his best men with him, trust in Winterfell's massive double wall. "The castle was too crowded. Men were at each other's throats, the Manderlys and Freys especially. It's them his lordship's sent after you, the ones that he's well rid of."
"Wyman Manderly." The king's mouth twisted in contempt. "Lord Too-Fat-to-Sit-a-Horse. Too fat to come to me, yet he comes to Winterfell. Too fat to bend the knee and swear me his sword, yet now he wields that sword for Bolton. I sent my Onion Lord to treat with him, and Lord Too-Fat butchered him and mounted his head and hands on the walls of White Harbor for the Freys to gloat over. And the Freys... has the Red Wedding been forgotten?"
"The north remembers. The Red Wedding, Lady Hornwood's fingers, the sack of Winterfell, Deepwood Motte and Torrhen's Square, they remember all of it." Bran and Rickon. They were only miller's boys. "Frey and Manderly will never combine their strengths. They will come for you, but separately. Lord Ramsay will not be far behind them. He wants his bride back. He wants his Reek." Theon's laugh was half a titter, half a whimper. "Lord Ramsay is the one Your Grace should fear."
Stannis bristled at that. "I defeated your uncle Victarion and his Iron Fleet off Fair Isle, the first time your father crowned himself. I held Storm's End against the power of the Reach for a year, and took Dragonstone from the Targaryens. I smashed Mance Rayder at the Wall, though he had twenty times my numbers. Tell me, turncloak, what battles has the Bastard of Bolton ever won that I should fear him?"
You must not call him that! A wave of pain washed over Theon Greyjoy. He closed his eyes and grimaced. When he opened them again, he said, "You do not know him."
"No more than he knows me."
"Knows me," cried one of the ravens the maester had left behind. It flapped its big black wings against the bars of its cage.
"Knows," it cried again.
Stannis turned. "Stop that noise."
Behind him, the door opened. The Karstarks had arrived.
Bent and twisted, the castellan of Karhold leaned heavily on his cane as he made his way to the table. Lord Arnolf's cloak was fine grey wool, bordered in black sable and clasped with a silver starburst. A rich garment, Theon thought, on a poor excuse for a man. He had seen that cloak before, he knew, just as he had seen the man who wore it. At the Dreadfort. I remember. He sat and supped with Lord Ramsay and Whoresbane Umber, the night they brought Reek up from his cell.
The man beside him could only be his son. Fifty, Theon judged, with a round soft face like his father's, if Lord Arnolf went to fat. Behind him walked three younger men. The grandsons, he surmised. One wore a chainmail byrnie. The rest were dressed for breakfast, not for battle. Fools.
"Your Grace." Arnolf Karstark bowed his head. "An honor." He looked for a seat. Instead his eyes found Theon. "And who is this?" Recognition came a heartbeat later. Lord Arnolf paled.
His stupid son remained oblivious. "There are no chairs," the oaf observed. One of the ravens screamed inside its cage.
"Only mine." King Stannis sat in it. "It is no Iron Throne, but here and now it suits." A dozen men had filed through the tower door, led by the knight of the moths and the big man in the silvered breastplate. "You are dead men, understand that," the king went on. "Only the manner of your dying remains to be determined. You would be well advised not to waste my time with denials. Confess, and you shall have the same swift end that the Young Wolf gave Lord Rickard. Lie, and you will burn. Choose."
"I choose this." One of the grandsons seized his sword hilt, and made to draw it.
That proved to be a poor choice. The grandson's blade had not even cleared his scabbard before two of the king's knights were on him. It ended with his forearm flopping in the dirt and blood spurting from his stump, and one of his brothers stumbling for the stairs, clutching a belly wound. He staggered up six steps before he fell, and came crashing back down to the floor.
Neither Arnolf Karstark nor his son had moved.
"Take them away," the king commanded. "The sight of them sours my stomach." Within moments, the five men had been bound and removed. The one who had lost his sword arm had fainted from loss of blood, but his brother with the belly wound screamed loud enough for both of them. "That is how I deal with betrayal, turncloak," Stannis informed Theon.
"My name is Theon."
"As you will. Tell me, Theon, how many men did Mors Umber have with him at Winterfell?"
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