Along the rotting-plank road, wooden stakes were driven deep into the boggy ground; there the corpses festered, red and dripping. *Sixty-three*, he knew, *there are sixty-three of them*. One was short half an arm. Another had a parchment shoved between its teeth, its wax seal still unbroken.
He thrust his longsword through █████’s heart, and twisted.
“Is there gold hidden in the village?” she shouted as she drove the blade up through his back. “Is there silver? Gems?” She stabbed twice more. “Is there food? Where is ▓▓▓▓▓?” She was on top of him by then, still stabbing. “Where did he go? How many men were with him? How many knights? How many bowmen? How many, how many, how many, how many, how many, how many? Is there *gold* in the village?”
He saw them cut the legs from █████’s mount and drag him to the earth, swords rising and falling as they closed in around him.
...*No, don’t, don’t cut my hair, ▓▓▓▓▓ loves my hair*. Then the steel was at her throat, and its bite was red and cold.
▓▓▓▓▓ watched his old friend sag softly into the pillows as the milk of the poppy washed the pain from his face. Sleep took him.
His foot lashed out and caught the bench, driving it hard into █████’s shins. Somehow the bearded man kept his feet, but ▓▓▓▓▓ ducked under his wild slash and brought his own sword up in a vicious backhand cut. Blood spattered on the ceiling and walls. The blade caught in the middle of █████’s face, and when ▓▓▓▓▓ wrenched it loose half his head came with it.
His cloak was blue, the color of the sky on a clear summer’s day, trimmed with a border of crescent moons, but as his blood seeped into it, the cloth darkened and the moons turned red, one by one.
▓▓▓▓▓ heard the knight groan as the sellsword lifted his blade with both hands and drove it down and in with all his weight behind it, under the arm and through the ribs. █████ shuddered and lay still.
Inside his cage, █████ clawed at the noose about his neck with bound hands and screamed incoherently of treachery and witchery, denying his kingship, denying his people, denying his name, denying all that he had ever been. He shrieked for mercy and cursed ▓▓▓▓▓ and began to laugh hysterically.
▓▓▓▓▓ felt the tears welling in his eyes, and knew he could not go on much longer. “He was ▒▒▒▒▒▒▒▒▒▒▒▒▒▒▒, but now his fire has gone out. He was █████. And now his watch is ended.”
...“hold your tongue and open your eyes. Those are no sheep bones.” *No*, ▓▓▓▓▓ thought, *those are the bones of a child*.
█████’s sword was sunk deep in ██████████’s throat, halfway to the hilt. █████ had always seemed such a big man to ▓▓▓▓▓, but locked in ██████████’s massive arms he looked almost like a child. “██████████ crushed his spine. I don’t know who died first.”
The last light of the setting sun shone in his hair. “Well, it’s too late now.” “Just so,” said ▓▓▓▓▓ as they stepped into the gloom of a twisty little alley. By the time ▓▓▓▓▓ returned to ▒▒▒▒▒’s house, an evening fog was gathering above the small canal. She put away her barrow, found ▒▒▒▒▒ in his counting room, and thumped her purse down on the table in front of him. She thumped the boots down too.
█████ stumbled backward, her feet slipping on the wet marble. And then she was gone. She never screamed. For the longest time there was no sound but the wind.
“He ran.” He looked at ▓▓▓▓▓’s face and laughed. “But not very fast.”
Wisps of dark smoke rose from his fingers as he pointed at █████ . “That one. Cut his throat and throw him in the sea, and the winds will favor us all the way to ▓▓▓▓▓.”
“What do █████ and ██████████ say of this?” “Little.” ▓▓▓▓▓ upended the sack, and the heads of ██████████ and █████ spilled out upon her carpets. “My gifts to ▒▒▒▒▒.”
Three men stepped to the gunwale, raised crossbows, fired. One bolt took █████ in the chest as he looked up, punching through the left crown on his surcoat. The others ripped into throat and belly. It happened so quickly neither █████ nor ▓▓▓▓▓ had time to cry out. When it was done, ▒▒▒▒▒ tossed the torch down on top of the corpse. The little boat was blazing fiercely as the galley moved away.
█████ raised his blade, too slowly. ▓▓▓▓▓’s longaxe took his right arm off at the shoulder, spun away spraying blood, and came flashing back again in a terrible two-handed slash that removed the head of █████ and sent it spinning through the air. It landed amongst the reeds, and the ▒▒▒▒▒ swallowed the red with a soft splash'.
“...He washed up two days later, all bloated and broken. Crabs ate his eyes, I hear.”
She knelt, kissed █████ on the lips, and pressed the cushion down across his face.
One instant █████ was coming after him spitting curses. The next he was spitting blood. ▓▓▓▓▓ had grabbed him by the hair, yanked his head back, and opened his throat ear to ear with one long slash. Then he gave him a rough shove, and the wildling fell forward, crashing face first across ▒▒▒▒▒. ▒▒▒▒▒ screamed in agony as █████ drowned in his own blood, the axe slipping from his fingers.
He never felt the fourth knife. Only the cold …
The sound █████ made when that hideous iron helmet covered his face was like nothing human. His feet hammered a frantic beat against the dirt floor, slowed, stopped.
He twisted free of the old man’s grasp, shoved the knife into █████’s belly, and yanked it out again, all red. And then the world went mad.
“I will kill him for you.” ▓▓▓▓▓ snatched up █████’s sword where it leaned against his shield. He still had fingers enough to clasp the hilt. When he laid the edge of the blade against the swollen throat of the creature on the straw, the skin split open in a gout of black blood and yellow pus. █████ jerked violently, then lay still. An awful stench filled the room.
“Oh.” █████ cupped his cheek with her hand. “You know nothing, ▓▓▓▓▓,” she sighed, dying.
█████ was hanging from the limb of an oak, a noose tight around his long thin neck. His eyes bulged from a black face, staring down at ▓▓▓▓▓ accusingly. You came too late, they seemed to say. But he hadn’t. He hadn’t! He had come when they told him. “You killed him,” he croaked.
“You remember where the heart is?” ▓▓▓▓▓ asked. She nodded. █████ rolled his eyes. “Mercy.” ▒▒▒▒▒ slipped between his ribs and gave it to him.
The links tightened, digging into her neck. “For hands of gold are always cold, but a woman’s hands are warm,” he said. He gave cold hands another twist as the warm ones beat away his tears.
He could feel his heart hammering in his chest. “What’s happening?” he said. His legs had turned to water. “I don’t understand.” “And never will,” a voice said sadly. The cobblestones rushed up to kiss him. █████ tried to cry for help, but his voice was failing too. His last thought was of ▓▓▓▓▓.
When the man pulled his spear loose, blood sprayed out in a dark fountain. “Carry him, he says,” he muttered, chuckling.
Whether his dick had actually been yellow was hard to determine, as someone had sliced it off and stuffed it into his mouth so forcefully they had broken three of his teeth. When the cooks found him outside the kitchens, buried up to his neck in a snowdrift, both dick and man were blue from cold.
They found █████ still tangled in his stirrup. He had an arrow through his right arm and a second in his chest, but it was the ground that had done for him. The top of his head was matted with blood and mushy to the touch, pieces of broken bone moving under the skin beneath the pressure of ▓▓▓▓▓'s hand.
They were gloved in the finest moleskin and sticky with blood, yet the touch was icy cold.
The axe crashed down. Heavy and well-honed, it killed at a single blow, but it took three to sever the man’s head from his body, and by the time it was done both living and dead were drenched in blood.
His eyes melted and ran down his cheeks, and the oil in his hair and beard burst so fiercely into fire that for an instant █████ wore a burning crown twice as tall as his head. The sudden stench of charred meat overwhelmed even his perfume, and his wail seemed to drown all other sound.
“I beg...” █████ swallowed. “... a ... a drink of water, and ... another boon. If you would...”
“*DON’T!*” shrieked █████, lifting bloody hands to shield his head. ▓▓▓▓▓ whirled the spiked ball once around his head and brought it down in the middle of █████’s face. There was a sickening crunch.
The ranger was leaning away, and for an instant it seemed that ▓▓▓▓▓’s slash had not touched him. Then a string of red tears appeared across the big man’s throat, bright as a ruby necklace, and the blood gushed out of him, and █████ fell.
▓▓▓▓▓ went through his leather jerkin and the white flesh of his belly and came out between his shoulder blades. The boy dropped the pitchfork and made a soft noise, something between a gasp and a sigh. His hands closed around the blade. “Oh, gods,” he moaned, as his undertunic began to redden. “Take it out.”
They laid █████ in a slender wooden boat, clad in shining silver armor, plate-and-mail. His cloak was spread beneath him, rippling blue and red.
And in their hands, the daggers.
She felt the cold wet metal against her cheek. Rain ran down the steel in rivers, and when the lightning flashed again she saw pain and fear and rank disbelief through the eye slits. “*▓▓▓▓▓,*” she whispered at him, as she gave her blade a hard twist that made him shudder. His weight sagged heavily against her, and all at once it was a corpse that she embraced, there in the black rain. She stepped back and let him fall . . .
█████ made a sound that was half a laugh and half a sob, and suddenly his smallclothes were wet, and he could feel the piss running down his leg, see steam rising off the front of his breeches.
When he raised his whip, he saw that the lash was burning. His hand as well. All of him, all of him was burning. *Oh*, he thought. Then he began to scream.
They found █████ in a tree, impaled upon a splintered branch and still roped to the three men who lay broken beneath him.
▓▓▓▓▓’s finger clenched. The crossbow *whanged* just as █████ started to rise. The bolt slammed into him above the groin and he sat back down with a grunt. The quarrel had sunk deep, right to the fletching. Blood seeped out around the shaft, dripping down into his pubic hair and over his bare thighs. “You shot me,” he said incredulously, his eyes glassy with shock.
█████ was sprawled across the cobbles, his throat a red ruin, eyes gaping sightlessly up at a bank of grey cloud. His ugly spotted dog stood on his chest, lapping at the blood pulsing from his neck, and every so often ripping a mouthful of flesh out of the dead man’s face.
True death came suddenly; he felt a shock of cold, as if he had been plunged into the icy waters of a frozen lake. Then he found himself rushing over moonlit snows with his packmates close behind him. Half the world was dark.
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 ▓▓▓▓▓’s arms sparkled in the torchlight, armored in pink frost. The cold outside had frozen his blood. “My brother ▒▒▒▒▒’s son.” ▓▓▓▓▓ lowered the body to the floor before the dais. “Butchered like a hog and shoved beneath a snowbank. A *boy*.”
“Die,” spat █████ … but as he lifted his *arakh*, its tip grazed one of the wall hangings and hung. That was all the chance ▓▓▓▓▓ required. He slashed open █████’s belly, parried the *arakh* as it wrenched free, then finished █████ with a quick thrust to the heart as █████’s entrails came sliding out like a nest of greasy eels.
“*Mercy!*” ▓▓▓▓▓ cried, but horns and drums and the clash of steel smothered her plea. ▒▒▒▒▒ buried the head of his axe in █████’s stomach.
The knight’s next cut was at the ▓▓▓▓▓’s ear, so savage that █████'s face seemed almost to explode.
As he drew back his huge fist, the blood on his gauntlet seemed to smoke in the cold dawn air. There was a sickening *crunch*.
█████ threw back his head and opened his mouth again, howling, and stuck his tongue out at her. It was sharply pointed, dripping blood, longer than any tongue should be. Sliding from his mouth, out and out and out, red and wet and glistening, it made a hideous sight, obscene. *His tongue is a foot long*, ▓▓▓▓▓ thought, just before the darkness took her. *Why, it looks almost like a sword*.
█████ put the point of his sword to the hollow of his throat and curled both hands around the hilt. And suddenly he lurched to the left, staggering into the rail. Wood split, and █████ vanished with a shout and a splash.
█████ was dangling a bloody corpse by one leg, the same way ▓▓▓▓▓ used to dangle her doll when she was small, swinging it like a morningstar when menaced by vegetables. *▓▓▓▓▓ never tore her dolls to pieces, though*. The dead man’s sword arm was yards away, the snow beneath it turning red.
She tugged hard on █████’s hair and sawed at his neck until the blade grated on bone. Blood ran hot over her fingers. His little bells were ringing, ringing, ringing, and the drum went *boom doom boom*.
*The bear is all in black*, ▓▓▓▓▓ thought. *Like ▒▒▒▒▒*.
She knocked aside his arm and punched the steel into his bowels. “Laugh,” she snarled at him. He moaned instead. “Laugh,” she repeated, grabbing his throat with one hand and stabbing at his belly with the other. “Laugh!” She kept saying it, over and over, until her hand was red up to the wrist and the stink of the fool’s dying was like to choke her. But █████ never laughed.
She had killed █████ with a whisper, and she would kill two more before she was through. *I’m the ghost in ▓▓▓▓▓*, she thought. And that night, there was one less name to hate.
She took them for rescue for half a heartbeat, till one of them struck █████’s head off with two huge blows of his axe. Hope blew out like a candle in a storm.
█████ was making a dry clacking noise, trying to speak. His eyes bulged white with terror, and he lifted a hand . . . reaching for ▓▓▓▓▓, or pointing . . . *Is he begging my forgiveness, or does he think I can save him?*
He jerked his broken blade up to protect his face, but as he went high she went low. ▒▒▒▒▒ bit through leather, wool, skin, and muscle, into the sellsword’s thigh. █████ cut back wildly as his leg went out from under him. His broken sword scraped against her chain mail before he landed on his back. ▓▓▓▓▓ stabbed him through the throat, gave the blade a hard turn, and slid it out...
█████ opened his mouth to plead, but the noose choked off his words. His feet left the ground, the rope cutting deep into the soft flesh beneath his chin. Up into the air he jerked, kicking and twisting, up and up and up.
“Enough,” snarled █████. “You think you can frighten ironborn with words? Begone. Run back to your master before I open your belly, pull your entrails out, and make you eat them.” He might have said more, but suddenly his eyes gaped wide. A throwing axe sprouted from the center of his forehead with a solid *thunk*. █████’s sword fell from his fingers. He jerked like a fish on a hook, then crashed face-first onto the table.
█████ twisted his neck around to stare up at him. “Please, my lord. Mercy. I’ll … I’ll go, I will, I …” *No*, thought ▓▓▓▓▓. *You closed that door*. ▒▒▒▒▒ descended. “Can I have his boots?” asked ░░░░░, as █████’s head went rolling across the muddy ground.
Dimly, as if from far away, she heard a … a *noise* … a soft sighing sound, as if a million people had let out their breath at once. The old man’s fingers dug into her arm, stiff as iron.
“Cold,” said █████ in a small puzzled voice, a heartbeat before the steel of his gorget parted like cheesecloth beneath the shadow of a blade that was not there. He had time to make a small thick gasp before the blood came gushing out of his throat.
█████ was still trying to fight as she pulled her blade from him, its fullers running red with blood. He clawed at his belt and came up with a dagger, so ▓▓▓▓▓ cut his hand off. *That one was for ▒▒▒▒▒*. “Mother have mercy,” the Dornishman gasped, the blood bubbling from his mouth and spurting from his wrist. “Finish it. Send me back to Dorne, you bloody bitch.” She did.
And the cowbells peeled in his antlers, singing *fool, fool, fool* while the red woman looked down on him in pity, the candle flames dancing in her red red eyes.
Then he saw. █████ was seated at his table, his head pillowed on the great leather-bound tome before him. *Sleeping*, ▓▓▓▓▓ thought … until he blinked and saw the deep red gash in the old man’s spotted skull and the blood pooled beneath his head, staining the pages of his book. All around his candle were bits of bone and brain, islands in a lake of melted wax.
The axe blow that had killed him had split his skull apart, but the great tangled beard could be no one else’s, or the garb, patched and unwashed and so faded it was more grey than black.
“Aye, but he thought us friends. A common mistake. When the old fool gave me his hand, I took half his arm instead. Then I let him see my face.”
Her song grew louder, shriller … then she gasped, again and again, and her song became a shuddering wail, thin and high and full of agony.
...█████ had an *arakh* planted right between his ram’s horns. ▓▓▓▓▓ wrenched the blade loose and parted █████’s head from his body with three savage blows to the neck.
Blood sprayed out across the snow, as red as summerwine. One of the horses reared and had to be restrained to keep from bolting. ▓▓▓▓▓ could not take his eyes off the blood. The snows around the stump drank it eagerly, reddening as he watched.
She sucked down a mouthful of the frigid air, and ▓▓▓▓▓ had half a heartbeat to glory in the taste of it and the strength of this young body before her teeth snapped together and filled his mouth with blood. She raised her hands to his face. He tried to push them down again, but the hands would not obey, and she was clawing at his eyes. *Abomination*, he remembered, drowning in blood and pain and madness. When he tried to scream, she spat their tongue out. The white world turned and fell away.
“The best pie you have ever tasted, my lords,” the fat lord declared. “Wash it down with Arbor gold and savor every bite. I know I shall.” True to his word, ▓▓▓▓▓ devoured six portions, two from each of the three pies, smacking his lips and slapping his belly and stuffing himself until the front of his tunic was half-brown with gravy stains and his beard was flecked with crumbs of crust.
The spears were eight feet long and made of ash. The one on the left had a slight crook, but the other two were smooth and straight. At the top of each was impaled a severed head. Their beards were full of ice, and the falling snow had given them white hoods. Where their eyes had been, only empty sockets remained, black and bloody holes that stared down in silent accusation.