Arya and the Dreadfort
The winter sun rose to the crackle of flames, and the smell of burning oak. A great river of smoke poured out from the mouth of the Dreadfort. Its towers twisted and writhed in the heat, and its outer walls blackened with soot. Even from the forest Arya could taste the salt of the black-stone, and smell the cooked flesh... or maybe that was Nymeria's nose.
Arya now had trouble telling her own senses from the direwolf’s. They had bonded so violently in the bowels of the Dreadfort that even in her own skin, Arya could taste, and smell, and feel as a wolf does. And sometimes she could feel Nymeria peering through her own eyes; like part of her soul had been left in the wolf. It was frightening. She had felt as if something was missing once she regained consciousness in the Dreadfort dungeon, after killing Ramsay. After eating Ramsay, she thought, feeling sick again.
Nymeria had managed to rouse her, just as her wolves had begun chewing on the chained man’s legs. She had called them off before they broke his skin, but the man was still shaking with fear. He had called himself Mance Rayder, and claimed to be a friend of her half-brother Jon. She had unchained him cautiously, and he had helped her unlock the rest of the doors in the dungeon. Many of the prisoners were too weak or ill to leave their cells. Some had begged her to leave before Ramsay returned. Even when she showed them his half eaten corpse they would not believe he was dead. Others simply begged for their suffering to end, and Arya gave them the gift of mercy. Many were terrified by the sight of the wolves, but Arya promised they would not be harmed, and the wolves kept their distance. Those who wanted to leave were escorted by Mance and herself, up the dungeon stairs. They found the dining hall empty, and Arya wondered what had become of the starving women, and their poor babes. They took what little food and provisions they could find, piled the corpses of the dead soldiers in the middle of the castle yard, and set the Dreadfort to the torch.
They stood now, at the edge of the forest, watching the Dreadfort crumble into ruins, as grey clouds rolled over the Northern sky. They were forty in all: Arya and Nymeria, a dozen wolves; and the sixteen women and nine men (including Mance) that they had rescued from the dungeons. Plus a little girl named June, who they’d found hiding in the kitchen pantry upstairs. Arya looked back and forth over her new pack, as soft snowflakes filtered through the leaves above; dappled light dancing across their frightened faces. The keep let out a long moan, as the eastern tower finally crumbled into ash. Four hundred years, Arya thought. I did what an army of Northmen couldn’t. I broke the Dreadfort, just like they’d broken Winterfell.
“Roose will not be able to ignore this,” Arya thought aloud, stroking Nymeria.
“No,” replied Mance. “His sole heir is slain, and his seat is ruined. Even that plump little Frey wife of his has absconded; off to the Twins to bury her grandfather, and squabble over the line of succession. It seems Roose’s reign is crumbling before it had even begun, and now with Stannis marching a fresh army on Winterfell…” Mance trailed off as the Dreadfort let out another moan. One of the women spat into the snow.
“His wrath will be terrible. He’ll have to return east… and then he’s mine.”
“I’m afraid it may not be so easy as that, little Arya.” Mance said softly. “Roose is not his son. Where Ramsay was vicious, Roose is cautious. Cautious and cunning. And with the Dreadfort in ruins he has even less reason to leave the safety of Winterfell. We should return to the Wall. Lord Snow will be able to help you, or else keep you safe.”
Jon, she though. Lord Snow. What she wouldn’t give to see him again; for him to hug her and muss up her hair, and tell her she’s safe. But she was no longer some little highborn girl to be pampered and protected. She was the wolf bitch of the Trident. She had trained under the Faceless assassins and the First Swords of Braavos. Her hands had spilt more blood than most knights. And now she had stormed the Dreadfort… and tasted the flesh of men. She looked up at Mance Rayder, and saw him for the first time. For a wildling warlord, he was surprisingly plain. Not particularly handsome, or even big, but there was a certain cunning in the man; that was clear. Ramsay had not broken him.
“What do you mean ‘our’? Who said I was taking you with me?” She replied. Mance laughed.
“You certainly have your brother’s stubbornness. And no one could mistake you for a helpless maid, but my lady, winter is upon us. We must seek refuge from the coming storm, and the North is a hostile place for a Stark these days. The Night’s Watch is sworn to stay out of the affairs of the realm. They will take you in. There are wildlings being settled in the Gift, who could help the prisoners.” Wildlings being given passage into the Seven Kingdoms? What is Jon planning up there? Arya turned to the survivors of the Dreadfort.
“My name is Arya Stark,” she said, trying to sound brave. “I am the rightful heir to Winterfell, and I intend to retake it from the false Warden Roose Bolton…” she paused, “…when the time is right. I fear all I have to offer you now is my sword.” She drew Titan. “You may come with me, or you may return to your homes and villages; what remains of them. Whatever you decide, you cannot stay here.” She looked up at Mance. “I make for Castle Black, at the Wall. What say you?” The gaggle of prisoners looked at her, wide-eyed. Some of the men looked away. She could see their hands shivering beneath their coats; those that had hands. They were a sorry lot. The little one, June, was the first to speak.
“I have no… no place to go. My mother was a serving maid for the Bolton’s, but Lord Ramsay… he… he…” She sobbed, and Arya wanted to hug her. “I’ll come with you Lady Stark,” she offered a small curtsy. “I can’t use no sword, but I can fish with a spear. And… and sew…” she trailed off, shivering. One of the women spoke next.
“My father was a fisherman sworn to the Dreadfort… but one month my father couldn’t afford his taxes… and so… Roose took me in payment. You saved my life Lady Arya. You saved all of us. I will help you if I can.”
“Most of our villages are deserted or destroyed,” an older man said. “During winter smallfolk would travel south, or take refuge in their lord’s castle. It was better before Ramsay came to the Dreadfort. Roose was not so bad, but Ramsay…”
“Roose was cunt, just like his bastard,” a boy spat. “He was just more crafty about it. I’m with you Lady Arya. You and your wolves, that is.” Arya eyed Mance. “I’ve always wanted to see the Wall.”
“Alright,” she said. “Then let’s get going. We’ll move north through the forest. We need to cover as much ground as possible before dark. The wolves will keep us safe from other beasts. We should reach the Kingsroad in three days if the weather is kind.” She sheathed Titan and climbed up on to her white destrier, Snowball. “C’mon,” she kicked the horse into a canter. Nymeria chased after her, followed by the wolves, and then finally the villagers.
They had found ten horses in the Dreadfort stables. She had given the strongest to Mance, but he had offered to walk instead. Most were mounted by women, with one given to the old man, and June riding double. They moved beneath the trees at a brisk pace. They needed to take advantage of the light snow. Arya and Nymeria rode side by side at the front of the column while her wolves spread out beneath the trees, around them. Mance stayed at the rear to make sure no one fell behind. Arya still wasn’t sure he could trust him. Why would Jon send a wildling to rescue her? But he had proven himself an honourable man thus far. Arya found her heart racing at the thought of seeing her brother again. She kept checking behind her for Bolton men, but so far they were alone. And Nymeria would sense danger long before Arya could see it. Turning again, she watched the last puff of the Dreadfort fade behind a hill. Soon Roose… soon you will pay for what you did to Robb and… and… she felt tears emerge as the image of her mother’s corpse on the riverbank flickered into view. She shook them off and scowled. Soon…
* * *
By sunset they had travelled about half as far as Arya had hoped. But there was no use continuing. The women could barely stay awake on their horses, and two of the men had fainted from exhaustion. They made a small fire deep in the woods. Nymeria returned to the camp with a deer sloped over her shoulder. Mance skinned the beast, skewered it, and roasted it over the flames. The wolves moaned in envy as the sizzling juices filled the cold air, but Nymeria kept them at bay. The meat was dry and stringy, but Arya found some sea salt and lime in their supplies, which gave it some flavour. To hear the villagers tell it, however, they had just eaten a meal from the King’s own table. Soon enough, the colour had returned to their faces, and they began to talk and smile and laugh at each other’s stories. Arya gave the bones to Nymeria and thanked her with a kiss. The direwolf licked her face, and for a moment she felt whole again.
Arya awoke the next morning to falling snow. Even so, her little pack was in high spirits. Little June handed her a yellow blossom she had found by a lake, bowing low. Arya mussed up her hair and told her it might be the last flower of winter. In truth she wasn’t much fond of flowers, but the thought reminded her of Sansa, and so she kept it. They arrived at the north end of the forest by late afternoon.
“We’ll stop and make camp here,” she announced. “The snow doesn’t look like it’s going to let up anytime soon, so this might be our last chance for decent shelter. There was no deer that evening, but one of the wolves found rabbits, so Mance boiled it up in a pot he’d taken from the Dreadfort, mixing in some herbs, peppers, and some ground acorn he’d found nearby. Again, Arya didn’t much care for the taste, but it was a hot meal and the villagers seemed happy.
The third day was much tougher. By then the snow was falling thick and fast. The wind whipped and howled, and without the trees for cover they soon resembled a party of snowmen; pale as ghosts, with frost sticking to their hair and brows. As the snow rose to their ankles, and then knees, the laughter and cheer of the forest faded. Soon they moved in silence across an endless wasteland of white crystal. There was little sign of life out here. June spotted a fox, but it was gone before Arya could draw an arrow. They rested more and more, digging camps into the walls of valleys. They ate stale bread and salted beef. There was little game for the wolves, and Arya noticed them dropping off one by one. Nymeria caught a ferrel badger on the fifth night, but they were unable to light a fire to cook it. In the end she let the direwolf have it all to herself.
On the seventh day of their journey, the first horse died. It just collapsed with a horrible yelp, and was dead by the time Arya reached it. It was the horse June had doubled on, and she could not stop crying. Mance said a little prayer for the brave beast, before stripping its skin, and fashioning a crude coat for one of the women. He cooked the horse meat over a meagre flame. Burnt on the outside and bloody on the inside, it tasted awful. But they all ate it; all but June. It was good to have warm meat inside them again.
The last wolf abandoned them on the tenth day, and then there was just Nymeria to protect them. Arya found herself slipping into the direwolf’s skin more and more, if only for the warmth. She would dash out into the fog; in search of food, or buildings, or people, or anything. But the smells had faded from the world, and there was only the cold, empty abyss of winter. The first tree they found Arya fell to her knees and prayed. She prayed for the Old Gods to end this wicked storm; for an end to their hunger, and fear, and sorrow; an end to the dark thoughts that had entered her mind. She prayed harder than she had ever prayed before, and she thought of Bran and her time in the Dreadfort. I heard him, she thought. He spoke to me in the dungeon. He must still be alive. He must be! She felt Nymeria breathing next to her, and Arya opened her eyes. June was on her knees as well, along with half of the survivors. The Old Gods have power in the North, my lady, she remembered Old Nan telling her. Treat them well and they will protect you.
* * *
The next day they finally found the Kingsroad. “The storm seems to be letting up,” Mance remarked, glancing at the sky. “At last... Maybe the Old Gods were listening.”
“I thought we were done for after the horses started to die off,” Arya replied, shivering. “We’ve still got a long journey ahead of us though. But we should at least be able to find shelter.”
“And our hardy villagers live on,” Mance laughed warmly.
“Half alive, at least,” said the old man, offering a faint smile.
“I’m sorry about your, wolves,” June squeaked.
“Oh, I’m sure they’ll be fine,” Arya lied. “As long as we have Nymeria, we’ll be safe. If I recall, there should be an inn two days ride from here. We’ll sleep on soft feather beds soon enough, under a dozen blankets. We’ll feast on roast lamp and crackling, drink a mug of ale and tell the patrons of our adventures.” She squeezed June’s shoulder and forced herself to smile. “How does that sound, hmm?” June smiled meekly, but Arya could see she was trembling from the cold. I must keep her warm, or she will die.
“We may even be able to send a raven off to Castle Black,” said Mance, feeding his horse a handful of oats.
That night that they slept in shrubbed ditch, half a mile off the main road. They boiled up the last of their oats and sugar. The bread was all frozen and mouldy so they gave it to the horses. Once again, Arya saw smiles return to the faces of the villagers. They dreamed of the inn, and boasted about how many mugs of ale they would down. Arya’s thoughts drifted, and before long she was fast asleep.
She was running now, across the white frost. The stink of squirrel had struck her nose, and now she was racing after it. Her paws hammered the cold earth, as crystal sprayed against her eyes. A flash of red darted left, but she swerved after it. The smell of fear and flesh pulsed through her body, and drool began to slide down her fur. It had been so long since she had tasted meat and her stomach ached. Her little cousins had all left, and she was forced to share her kills. But the squirrel was all hers. A thick black tree rose quickly before her, and she slashed her way up, striking the little beast right across the throat. Hot blood filled the air, dribbling out across the snow. Nymeria tore into her kill, its little chest still heaving. The moist meat ran down her chin in sloppy chunks. It was stringy, but the chase had mad it red hot; and it tasted so good after so long. Nymeria sucked the last few morsels of meat from bone and began to pad back to her people. The dying embers of their nest flickered in the distance. Suddenly she froze, lowering her nose to the ground. Men, big men; eight or nine lumbering up the road. They were loud and brutish, and Nymeria’s fur began to bristle.
Arya sat up with a jolt, sweat pouring down her face. “Mance,” she whispering, shaking. “Mance,” a little louder. Mance stirred from beneath his cloak. He emerged wearily, rubbing his eyes. “Mance, there are men; men coming up the Kingsroad.” She slipped back into Nymeria’s skin. “Nine of them; all on horseback.” Mance drew his sword and peered over the edge of the ditch. He turned back with a look of horror.
“The embers! Cover them quickly… oh no…” he crouched lower. “I think they’ve spotted us.” Arya drew her sword, and began to rouse the villagers.
“We’ll ride out and meet them. They might just think it’s the two of us.” She grabbed June by the collar. “If something goes wrong get out of here as fast as you can. Ride two to a horse if you have to. The Inn of the Laughing Tree is just a day or so North. You can make it.”
“No…” June whimpered.
“Yes,” ordered Arya, mounting Snowball. She kicked him forward, before June could say another word. Mance galloped up to her side. She could see the men, already trotting towards them. She felt Nymeria approaching cautiously from the far side of the Kingsroad.
As the men drew closer, Arya saw that they well armoured and helmed, mounted on nine enormous stallions, with long-swords, bows and axes fastened to their sides. Their shields and mail bore a strange sigil that Arya did not recognise. It was a yellow ring of flame, around the head of a fox. No, not a fox, a stag…. Baratheon.
“Well met, Sers,” called Mance, moving his horse ahead of Arya’s. “A fine night for a ride through the snow.”
“That’s close enough, wildling. What are you and your brat doing so far south? You know you’re not allowed to leave the Gift.”
“We ought to hang you right here,” grunted another.
“You wrong us,” Mance replied, halting. “We are friends of your lord, Stannis,” Arya noticed his hand move to his sword belt, “and the Night’s Watch. Are you survivors from the Battle at Winterfell?” The men did not reply for a moment. Arya could feel Nymeria creeping closer.
“We were never at Winterfell,” one of the men answered at last. “The king ordered us to stay at the Wall with his wife, but—”
“What do you know of Winterfell?” breathed the leader, edging forward. Arya didn’t like his tone.
“We were at Winterfell,” Mance answered, “when Stannis launched his first assault; prisoners of Lord Bolton. We escaped and were on our way back north, to the Wall.” The best lies are always seasoned with a little truth, she remembered the Kindly Man tell her once.
“Prisoners,” the leader snorted, drawing his sword, “or spies.” Mance wheeled in front of Arya, unsheathing his blade in kind. Sensing danger, Nymeria broke into a run.
“No don’t,” Arya blurted out. “Don’t hurt him, ser. It’s not what you think.” A grey shadow ripped the knight right from his saddle, wrestling him into the snow with a gulp of blood. A chorus of steel rang out as the other knights quickly fanned out around them. One of them swung his axe at Mance, but the wilding ducked it, heaving his sword up through the man’s armpit. He cried out, toppling into the snow. Two more advanced, as Nymeria tore at the screaming knight below. Without a second thought, Arya kicked Snowball into a sprint. She wrenched Titan out of its scabbard, just in time to meet the man’s blow. She grabbed the tip of her sword, and punched the knight with the hilt of her sword. He cursed, swinging back wildly. Mance swung again, hacking deep into the man’s shoulder with a rush of blood.
Arya cried out, but it was too late. One of the knight’s drew his axe hard across the head of Mance’s horse, toppling them both with a blood-curdling scream. Arya swerved, positioning herself between Mance and the men. She had mastered swordcraft on Braavos, and could go toe to toe against any knight, but she had no talent for horseback fighting. Nymeria padded to hear side, her snout stained with blood. She made a ferocious noise. Two of the stallions nayed, backing away nervously, but the other four did not flinch.
Arya kicked Snowball towards the rider on the right. “Winterfell,” she shouted, sword outstretched. Their swords clanged violently as they passed. She wheeled around to make another charge, just in time to see Nymeria tackle a second knight from his horse. “Winterfell,” she charged again, the sounds of anguished screams rattling against her helm. This knight had an axe and she knew she would not be able to counter it. Instead, she swerved the destrier left at the last second, slamming Titan hard across the man’s gut. The impact wrenched them both into the snow. Dizzy, she wrestled with the man, clutching for Titan, but it had landed out of reach. Scrambling onto the man’s chest, she drew a knife from her ankle and drove it savagely through the slit in his helm. Blood splashed into her eyes with a shriek.
She thought she heard Mance yell, “look out,” but all of a sudden she was face down in the snow with the taste of blood and sick squirming through her gums. A song of steel erupted around her. The sounds of screams and curses, and baying horses echoed through her helm. Her mind began to race into shadow, as the vision of a little girl, face down in the snow flashed across her eyes. June, she thought. Get up June, get up and run. But the little girl was her. She was seeing what Nymeria saw. The direwolf let out another roar, and the taste of human blood pulsed through her again. Get up, she told herself. Get up and fight, Arya of House Stark. She pushed herself up with a groan, and snatched Titan from the snow. The world spun, but she could make out two men fighting beneath a pale moon. The man in armour was hammering at his opponents shield, cursing the Gods.
“Stannis should ‘av burned you bloody savages, when… when he ‘ad the chance,” Arya could see he was crying and out of breath. “Shoulda had us a wildling bonfire for the Red God to see. Maybe then… Maybe… AHH!” Mance drove his blade right through a chink in the knight’s ribs, twisting it through to the other side. The skewered man collapsed to his knees.
“That’s right boy, get on your haunches where a kneeler belongs.” Mance spat. He wrenched the sword out, and cut the man’s head clean off, with a grunt.
“Arya,” he cried, looking up. “Are you okay?”
“Your neck,” she gasped. “It’s bleeding.”
“Just a flesh wound,” he laughed, but already there was a pool of black ice seeping around his feet. “I’ve had worse… from better.” He spat again. His voice was low, and raspy. Arya grabbed a cloth from Snowball’s harness and pressed it tight against Mance’s bloody neck.
“Is that all of them?” she asked, as he grabbed hold of Snowball for support.
“Two of ‘em fled,” he replied, gesturing towards the Kingsroad, “Once that beast of yours bared her pearly whites.” Nymeria was munching greedily on what looked like a man’s leg. “Won’t they have a story to tell.”
“Please,” squeaked a voice. “Please no. Keep it away.” Something had drawn Nymeria’s gaze. “Please, it wasn’t me. It was Agus. I didn’t want to stop.”
“Nymeria,” Arya said, approaching the begging knight. “To me.” One of the men had been pinned down by his dead horse. His helmet was cracked and bloodied, but he was otherwise intact.
“Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t gut you where you lay,” Mance said, staggering forward, one hand on his sword, the other pressed against his throat.
“You’re her, aren’t you?” he said to Arya, ignoring Mance’s threat. “You’re the girl they’re looking for. The Bolton bride.”
“Ramsay Bolton is dead,” she replied darkly. “I slew him myself.” She drew the point of Titan along his shivering throat. The man looked shocked. “You said you were at the Wall when Stannis attacked Winterfell. Why?”
“We were ordered to stay and look after the Queen Selyse; and to assist Lord Snow in restoring the Nightfort.”
“Then why are you riding south?” Mance probed. “Are you traitors, or just cravens?”
“Cravens? No… well, perhaps… But we had no choice. They were threatened to kill the Lady Melisandre.”
“Who?” Mance cried.
“Our priestess,” the man wept. “Our voice to the Lord of Light.”
“No, I mean who drove you from the castle?”
“The Night’s Watch. There was… there was a mutiny.” No, Arya though. The hair on the back of her neck began to bristle. “Lord Snow was going to lead an army of wildlings to Winterfell, to rescue his sister.” No. Jon, no. Tears stung her eyes. “His brothers; they stabbed him. Bowen Marsh and the others. They stabbed him!”
“No!” Arya roared. “You’re lying!”
“I’m not,” he pleaded. “There was an uprising. They killed the Lord Commander and seized control of Castle Black. Anyone who fought back was killed or locked in the ice cells. They had already imprisoned Lady Melisandre. They took the Queen as well; even the little princess Shireen. Her fool Patchface slew four Brothers trying to protect here… before they took his head. We had no choice!” he was sobbing now. “We were outnumbered and they had our Queen! We were riding south to regroup with Stannis’ men.” Arya fell to her knees. No, not Jon as well. How could the Gods by so cruel?
“What of…” Mance grasped for words. “What of the other castles. What of the Shadow Tower? What of East Watch?”
“Castle Black has lost all communication with Cotter Pyke. Last we knew he was sailing north of the Wall, to investigate some wildling township. Denys Mallister has sworn vengeance, but most of the Wall’s strength is housed in Castle Black, and they have already voted Bowen Marsh as the new Lord Commander of the Wall.
“Tormund…” Mance breathed. “He must have…” he trailed off.
“The Giantsbane fled south to the Gift. Most of the wildlings went with him, while the mutiny was occurring.” The knight let out a moan. “Please… it hurts…” Mance sheathed his sword and knelt. He grasped the rump of the stallion, and heaved. The knight wriggled out with a groan.
“I’m sorry,” he said, struggling to his feet. “I never spoke to your brother, but he seemed a decent boy; a decent man.”
“Will you make for Stannis?” Mance asked.
“King Stannis is dead,” the knight sighed. “If Ramsay Bolton can be trusted; which he can’t. At the very least his host will be wandering a few days ride south. If we can regroup in the Wolfswood, maybe we’ll have a chance. Who knows?” He hoisted himself up onto one of the other stallions. He removed his cracked helmet and threw it to the ground. Veins of dry blood streaked his face. “I wish you luck, Arya of House Stark. Good luck and fair weather.” His expression was mournful. He kicked the horse into gear and galloped away.
“Jon’s dead,” Arya said, as they watched the knight disappear along the Kingsroad. Saying the words did not make it any less painful. “Stannis too; and Roose Bolton sits on my father’s throne, sharpening his blade.” She spat. Her grief had transformed into a blinding rage.
“South, there is only bloodshed. We cannot hope to breach the castle by ourselves. But north may still hold some hope. The wildlings are gathering in the Gift. I was once King-Beyond-the-Wall. I may be able to rally them to our cause. If they wed their strength to the Shadow Tower, we may…” He sighed, shaking his head.
“We may be able to retake the Wall,” Arya finished, stroking Titan. What about Ghost? She’d forgotten to ask the knight about Jon’s direwolf.