This was hardly Asha's first drowning, though as she walked down the rocky descent towards the shoreline, she had a feeling this one would be more memorable than the others. There were certain expectations of a lady - though nearly everyone used the term loosely - of the Iron Islands, and among them certain appearances were necessary. She'd been seven years old when she saw her first one, and she remembered fondly the way her father clasped her on the shoulder and leaned down to whisper in her ear what the priests were doing, how the greatest and most blessed of the Drowned God had never lost a life. It filled her with a rush of pride for the saltwater and coursed through her veins and awe as the drowned man sputtered and coughed the sea water from his lungs. But that was years ago, and since Asha had seen as many deaths as she had resurrections and she knew that the gods were fickle and cruel.
She'd lost the childish wonder that had once washed over her, and now she watched with a cool detachment. There was no father standing next to her, whispering in her ear, no brothers lingering near with their proud smiles. Even her mother had returned to Harlaw and made no sign of coming back. Asha cared little about the latter of those things, it was the men she loved that left the aching gap in her chest.
The weather matched her mood perfectly. A gray sky hovered thick and low, clouds strung so thin that they cast a blind cover over the horizon. The winds had picked up just after dawn, not that she could call what happened that morning a dawn at all. There had been a brief shimmer of sunlight in the earliest morning hours, and Asha had watched it from her bedroom window, before the dimly glowing body slipped behind the clouds and stayed hiding there. Even it was wise enough not to show its face today. After that, the skies grew dim again and the waves crashed their brutal protest against the dark rocks of the shoreline. She'd inquired briefly if there would even be a drowning that morning, but her uncle assured her that as long as the skies didn't break open and spill over the island, they would take it as a blessing not an omen.
Asha didn't buy into blessings or omens much, but she knew her instincts when they reared up and spoke to her. This morning they screamed and kicked and protested as she dressed - thick leather over oiled skins that clung tight and warm to her flesh, and a hard-won cloak of shadowy gray rabbit slung over her shoulders - and twist her hair back into a bone clasp at the back of her neck. She pushed the feeling away, hearing her father's voice distinct in her mind: Fear is not for the Ironborn.
She wasn't afraid, she told herself, she was intelligent and observant, and those things cried out to her that this morning was begging for a tragedy. Grabbing only a piece of dark bread and a skin of wine on her way out of her husband's home, she forced herself to join the huddled, shivering fray.
Sea water sprayed up over the rocks as the waves crashed and the wind rumbled around them. Asha found a flat rock to sit on and pressed the skin of wine between her knees as she tore chunks from the bread and waited. Down below, his back to the sea, her uncle stood next to another priest with a naked man kneeling between them. He couldn't be more than seventeen and he looked terrified. Asha felt her heart wrench for a moment, a pang of sympathy, but she forced her eyes to stay on him as the priests took him by an arm a piece and turned him towards the wet cacophony behind them. She saw him square his shoulders and hold his head high, though his body trembled from cold and trepidation as they drew him down from the bank.
She'd never liked the next part, though she was thankful it was usually over quick, as the priests tipped the young man back into the water and held him under. Sometimes she could see the thrashing, sometimes men went calm and easy into the deep, but today she couldn't tell how the young man reacted to his death. A hard wave crashed against them and Asha watched the foam come up over her uncle's head and leave him staggering, drenched, as he leaned to force the boy lower. But his demeanor was as steadfast as his faith and never once did he lose sight of the task at hand.
Long moments passed before the two men dragged a waterlogged, lifeless body back to the shore and laid him out on an oiled leather skin at the shore. She thought of her other uncle's blue lips as she stared at the body, the color draining rapidly from his flesh. He looked even smaller, younger now, and Asha had to worry if the steely resolve in his eyes hadn't made her guess that he was older than he was. He was just a child, really, and she looked around to see if there was a mother and father clinging in baited hope anywhere on the shoreline. But anyone with parents wouldn't take such a drastic step at such a young age, she thought. Her gaze returned to ritual, her uncle's wet robes fanned out around him and sticking to his hunched-over back as he leaned over the boy.
The tension was as tangible in the air as the heavy smell of salt as the priests tried to force the water from the boy's lungs again. They pressed vigorously on his chest and Asha could see concern wash over her uncle's face. He'd never lost a man before and to watch him lose his first, as it seemed may happen, struck her harder than the idea of watching a boy die.
Handing the last chunk of her bread to a girl, no more than nine, who looked like she needed it more than Asha, she uncorked her wine and swallowed down a gulp. It burned in her chest and warmed her from the inside out and, smiling gently at the little girl who'd scoot closer to her side, she pressed a conspiratorial finger to her lips and handed over the wine with a wink. The girl giggled, the sound so out-of-place among the nervous onlookers, and took a quick swig before handing the skin back to Asha. She wiped her mouth on the back of a grubby hand and finally slid forward to sit on the rock next to Asha, resting her head on Asha's arm to watch the priests stand and back away from the unmoving boy on the shore.
Asha's heart sunk and she breathed a heavy sigh, hanging her head.
"The Drowned God take him," the girl murmured next to her, words someone must have taught her, and Asha gave a reluctant nod.
"He'll forever sail and sing and claim his shores in the hall below now," Asha said softly, unsure who she was comforting.
Her eyes locked on her uncle's face, his long beard twisted with seaweeds and knotted wet hanging down from his drawn face. He gathered his gray-green robes around him and began to motion for another priest when a commotion at his feet caused him to pause. Asha's body went rigid and she leaned forward, eyes wide, as the boy heaved water out of his nose and mouth and a clap of thunder rang overhead. An almost victorious smirk slipped across her lips and she stood, cloak whipping around her until she gathered it in against her body. The clouds rolled darker and thicker and the priests rolled the boy to his knees, holding his shoulders as he heaved and choked.
The crowd seemed to knit even closer to the trio and Asha had to stand up on the rock to peer over the gathering. Next to her, the little girl tugged on her cloak and Asha bent quickly to lift her up into her arms so she could see as well. The girl clung to her shoulders, an arm wrapping around her, and watched silently as the people gathered roared to life.
A drop of water splashed against Asha's cheek as the priests helped the boy to his feet and wrapped him in the same gray-green robes of the Drowned Men. Chants and cheers and applause rang loud over the thunder, the crowd parting for the priests to lead their new initiate back up the slope of the shore. Asha made brief eye contact with her uncle, who paid her a swift smile as he passed. He still hadn't lost a man and Asha felt that swelling of pride she'd missed well up in her chest. He was a Greyjoy and he'd fought and won a life for their god. She may not hold much more than a passing faith in the stories herself, but it brought her a small touch of joy to see the excitement and happiness in her people as they gathered back towards their homes.
Asha stepped off the rock and set the little girl back down, ruffling her long black hair lightly. "And sometimes the Drowned God shows mercy," she said, eyes flicking up to the gathering storm clouds ahead, "but only when he has a point to prove by it."
The girl nodded, reaching out to trace the kraken embroidered on Asha's vest with a finger, and rushed off to find her parents.
Another fat drop of rain landed on the bridge of Asha's nose and she wiped the water away quickly, watching the girl cling to her father's side. She nodded as he looked back over his shoulder at her, taking a moment before he recognized who she was, and gave her a reverent nod in return. Asha smiled, taking up her skin of wine as she sat back down on the rock again. She'd wait for the storm to roll in and watch the waves consume the shoreline before making her way back in to her husband's home. Watching the gods wage war on surface of the sea was more interesting to her than entertaining a fat old man who'd bought her for a pawn. She was a Greyjoy, she thought, and if a Greyjoy had the power to return a man from the deep, then a Greyjoy had the power to commit a man to it as well.