A dance, a brush of the arm, a hand touching cold steel… Dacey Mormont had seen and felt little enough.
Enough, though, that her hands shook with terror.
Steel, at a wedding, under a richly decorated doublet. Could there be some reasonable motive for Edmyn Frey to be wearing such a thing in secret? No, there were only two causes to wear armor in such a way, at such a time. Either Edmyn Frey was expecting an assassin, or he intended to be one. Dacey knew little enough of Southern politics, but she knew enough to discern which of the two Edmyn expected.
She had not wanted to dance with Edmyn at all but the Smalljon had pushed her to it. Better sooner rather than later, she had thought, better to get it over with and silence the Smalljon early in the evening so that she could enjoy the rest in peace. In any case, a dance was no great evil. Dacey could step to music as gracefully as any Southern maiden, and at times she enjoyed reminding oafs like the Smalljon of that.
But then the steel underneath. Steel at a wedding. Could Edmyn Frey be alone? No, that was unthinkable. And even as she thought it a million other things caught her attention. The maiden Roslin, awaiting her bedding, was pale as a sheet. Black Walder and his ilk were dressed too warmly for a warm autumn night. Her eyes turned upwards to the gallery and saw the numerous bards. Too many bards, and too warmly dressed as well. The bottom dropped out of her gut with fear. This was not a scheme of an Edmyn Frey. This was a scheme of Old Walder himself, and one that had been a long time brewing. She forced herself to be calm, focused on her breathing. She could be calm in a battle, and this was not one of those, not yet. The Freys might wear steel but she had steel too, deep in the core of her being. Her spine locked in place. She would not look at Old Walder, would not give the game away. She would go instead to her King, to King Stark, and warn him of the danger before… before this plot was brought to fruition.
The boy himself lounged in his high seat, untroubled and invincible. A handsome boy, her king Robb was, with blood-red curls and fine features, but a boy he nonetheless remained. Too young to be expected to lead, yet he had. Too young to die, yet he might.
She joined him on his wide seat and leaned into him as if she were his lover. A ridiculous act, for she was a full hand taller than him, but she did not do it for his benefit. He reacted instantly, pulling away, but she caught his shoulder in an iron grip.
"My King," she urged, desperately quiet and intense. "My King, you are not safe, but we cannot let our enemies know that I am aware of them. Let them see only your bodyguard attending to you. They will all believe it easily enough, I have been hearing their remarks all evening."
Her King nodded slowly, then forced a smile. "What is the matter?" His voice came sharp and hard.
"Edmyn Frey, Black Walder, and a dozen others are armed and armored, your Grace. I felt the steel under Edmyn's cloak myself, and the others are dressed much like him. Half the bards and singers are only pretending to play, and every Frey that isn't dressed for battle is near white with fear." She forced herself to smile, her grimace matching the King's' own. "Look at our hosts, my King, and tell me we are safe."
Her King's eyes circled the room, his fake smile cracking under the strain of a clenched jaw. He said nothing for a moment. "They're waiting for something," he muttered, half to himself. "When will they strike? The bedding. That will be the best time. I will be right in and among them then, three to a side. I will have a dozen knives in me before I hit the floor."
"They'll strike right now if they suspect you know," Dacey said, her voice low and near to the King's ear. She swallowed her fear and placed a hand on his chest. "We've neither armor nor weapons larger than a butterknife, your Grace."
The King's lips pressed into a hard line. "I won't leave anyone behind I won't..."
"Your mother, your uncle… others, they can be ransomed. You must live, your Grace. In a game of cyvasse, the King alone truly matters in the end."
A flash of rage overtook her King's face, and she felt sure he would strike her. "Do not presume to tell me what I must do."
Dacey felt like crying, for this stupid, wonderful boy that she called her king. "Excuse yourself to the privy," she urged, "and I… I can bring the Queen Mother and few others to meet you there. We can cut our way free if we move fast." They needed to leave behind the bulk of their leadership. Too many of the guests were inebriated or indisposed. Even so, she knew in her heart that her plan had but a small chance of success.
The King's eyes tightened in anger, tears forming at the edge. How unfair it was, Dacey thought, that the King's virtue should only bring him sadness. Wars were hard enough business for kings who did not care for their men. When the King wiped his eyes clear, his eyes were hard as flint. "I will distract the Freys. You rally those of our men that are sober. Get someone up by the gallery in case those bards are hiding crossbows, and send a trustworthy squire out to get to rally the men in the camp. If Frey means to kill us here, he likely intends to Bitterbridge the army in the camp as well."
"My King, I..."
The king gently pushed her to the side and reached for a flagon of wine. How could he drink at this time? They needed sharp wits, sharp, minds. But the King rose from his seat and tipped the flagon back, drinking deeply of strong wine.
...Or not, she realized with a start. This was a mummer's farce, a play for their would-be assassins. The flagon tipped back, but the wine did not go past his lips. He turned to Dacey, a broad smile on his face. His cheeks still had a puffy red color from crying, but it was easy enough to believe the redness born of wine rather than sorrow.
"Be merry, Lady Dacey!" He cried. "Be not sad! Tis my nuncle's wedding today! I think I shall dance, and you should as well!"
Eyes were on them now, from Jinglebell the idiot jester all the way up to his grandfather Walder up on his high seat. "Your Grace," Dacey said, standing abruptly and straightening her gown, "You are asking me to dance?"
Robb burped, suddenly, and laughed, "Ah, I was, but I have thought better of it, Lady Dacey. I fear I have but one good…" He stumbled slightly here. "I fear that drink has got the better of me. I might only have one dance yet tonight before you and all my guards must carry me back to my chair, and if I have but one dance, how could I dance with anyone but my fair cousins the Freys!"
Behind her, the Greatjon exploded in a gale of laughter and Dacey found herself smiling as well. Her King could have made a wonderful mummer.
"Who will dance with me?" the King called, addressing the crowd, greatly to the merriment of everyone assembled.
The Frey men, too surprised at first, recovered quickly and pushed some of their daughters forward, the maidens blushing and nervously smiling at each other. Their smiles were too tight by half, Dacey thought, and too nervous - or was that but her imagination? The King ignored them all and striding forward caught the elbow of a great drunken mound of a man. "Cousin Merrett!" Robb laughed. "Will you not dance with me?"
The Stark men bellowed with laughter at that, and the mirth of the Frey men seemed the lesser by only a narrow margin. Merrett Frey was an enormous man, tall as an oak tree and nearly as wide. He seemed more shocked by this development than anyone else, dropping his flagon to the table in surprise. The musicians switched the tune to The Bear and the Maiden Fair as the young king pulled big Merrett Frey out to dance.
All eyes followed the king, and so Dacey was freed from their notice. Her King had said he would have but one dance before she needed to be ready, that much had been clear. The Smalljon would know first. The big man was serious, sensible, and dangerous. He had scarcely touched drink all night, and his deep-set eyes watched her coolly as she approached.
"Treason," Dacey whispered, clapping him on the shoulder. "Armor and daggers on the Freys, crossbows in the gallery, and I know not what else. Stand ready by the door with your father and however many others you can gather quietly. The Twins will flow with blood this night. Let us ensure that our King's is not among it."
Smalljon's face did not shift at all, except to make a slight nod. Dacey clapped him on the shoulder again and walked off. They split ways, the Smalljon turning to Wendell Manderly and Dacey approaching Lady Stark. The Lady rose to meet her.
"I know what it is you want to say," Lady Stark stated, before Dacey could even open her mouth. "There is only one reason for you to be sitting so familiarly in my son's lap."
Dacey bowed, "I ask for your forgiveness, milady. After this… dance of your son's is over, we will have to… very speedily return him to his chair, I think."
Catelyn nodded, her understanding perfect. "I shall be ready to attend my son. A chair near the door perhaps?" Meet me near the door, she might as well have said. "You are excused," Catelyn replied, and Dacey walked away. Not for the first time, Dacey smiled with admiration for the Iron Lady of the North. A trout by birth, but she had as much wolf in her as anyone.
A dozen more conversations and the song began to enter its last verse. Dacey walked calmly to the far end of the room near the foot of the table, a butcher's knife hidden in the folds of her skirt. A score of the King's stoutest men had gathered there, all idly mingling on the far side of the room alongside Lady Stark and a few other women of import. Lord Tully himself had been too deeply surrounded by Freys for any attempt at extraction. Indeed, more than half of the King's men had been left alone. Too little time, too much wine.
Dacey grit her teeth with nervousness. It seemed unlikely that anyone had noted their movement, at least. All eyes remained fixed on the King and his bumbling, drunken dance in the center of the room. Merret Frey's eyes bulged hugely with exertion as Robb danced the woman's part in front of him and all his cousins sang along with the bards.
Dacey swallowed a draught of air to cool herself. This room was too hot, the music too loud, the food too rich and the scents too pungent. She needed focus, not this… madness. Up above, the bards played the final verse ofThe Bear and the Maiden Fair, and Dacey closed her eyes to center herself.
"And maiden FAIR," The bards screamed, joined by half a hundred lesser voices, "And the BEAR, the BEAR…."
The King finished his dance with an elegant bow to his gasping partner. Poor Merrett Frey had tried his best to keep up with the boy, but if he had ever been given to dance, that had been a summer and a winter ago. Robb laughed aloud as though he had not a care in the world and the Freys laughed with him.
"What a wonderful wedding this is! And what wonderful music! But come, there is one song more I must hear!" Robb's cry was full of joy, but all at once his face turned hard and his voice turned cold. "The Rat Cook. Does my Lord Frey remember that song? Does he remember what the gods have to say of those who breach guest right?"
The room stopped. All at once, every man, child, and serving girl halted, their merriment turning to shock. Old Walder himself leaned forward on his throne, bony jaw open wide with amazement.
"Why continue this farce, Frey?" the King stated, his quiet voice almost a shout in the sudden silence. "Come on now, there's a hundred of you and only one of me, who wants the honor of saying they killed the Young Wolf?"
The room exploded. Every Frey man in the room went for a dagger, but the Northmen were quicker. Dacey's knife cut across a man's throat before he could so much as turn to face her. Next to her the Greatjon grabbed Edmyn Frey's skull and crushed his face into a bloody smear on the table. A dozen Frey men were dead in a second.
Crossbow bolts whizzed through the air and Dacey's heart leapt into her throat. "Robb!" She cried, but she should have saved her breath. The Young Wolf took Merret Frey by the belt and used him as a shield. The fat man had four bolts springing from his back already. Then the King was away, sliding under the table to them.
"To the King!" She meant to cry, but half the words failed her, and she found herself screaming "King! King!" over and over. The Greatjon took a bolt to the shoulder and went down as they charged the door. A fully armored knight stepped out to greet them, battleax in hand. The Smalljon threw a flagon of mulled wine in his face and bull-rushed him, throwing him to the earth like a sack of flour. Up above in the gallery Ser Wendel Manderly and the White Harbour knight led the charge against the bards, plowing through them as they struggled to ready their crossbows.
Still, bolts stormed in from behind and they pushed through the door. Raynald Westerling threw himself over the king and was rewarded with three short black shafts. They were out the door and into the corridor then, and they pressed on. A hundred paces further and a band of Northmen appeared, Bolton men in pink and black. "We're here to help," their leader said, walking forward as if to join the guards. But no, there were to be no Boltons here, and these men were too ready for this treachery to be friends. The King and the Smalljon and her all shared a glance, realizing the same truth of it at once. "Traitor!" She screamed, and charged forward, the Smalljon and Lucas Blackwood right behind her. The Bolton men reacted with little surprise, snarling and drawing swords. Only three could fight at a time, and Dacey resolved to kill at least one of these traitors before she died.
Dacey's opponent, a big brute in plate, swung a heavy battleax toward her face. She turned the ax with her dagger and thrust her elbow into his windpipe. She had no armor and they had no time. She had to win this quickly or not at all. The brute stumbled, then crushed her face with a mailed fist. Pain exploded from behind her eyes and she fell, down, down… she dimly registered an armored boot coming down to crush her dead...
But then the Young Wolf stepped over her with an ax taken from a fallen enemy and split the man's helm in two. All at once it ended, and the enemy was routing down the hall. Dacey felt a hand under her arm. "Get up, Get up!" her King screamed, and she obeyed.
"Go on, go on ahead," she gasped, her mind fogged with pain. She had not died, but she had not killed her man, either, and she was no use to her King like this. "Leave me, Leave..."
"I'm not leaving anyone who can walk," the King hissed through clenched teeth.
"If you want me to hurry, get moving," The King growled. Dacey's jaw flexed and she found her feet. The dizziness faded. Her face bled freely and her whole body ached, but at least her feet could move.
They all shuffled on. Dacey heard the Greatjon screaming behind them as he made a desperate last stand at the door. The King nearly stopped in his tracks at the sound but the Smalljon checked him with a shoulder and pushed him forward. The Freys hadn't been ready. Only terrified servants and parlormaids blocked their path. But they would meet men who could fight at the door to the courtyard, Dacey thought grimly, and when the guard stopped to fight them, the Freys would catch up in a heartbeat.
"Lucas? Lucas!" the King yelled. "Where is Ser Lucas?
Their answer came in the sound of clashing steel from behind them. With a shock Dacey realized that quiet Lucas Blackwood had slipped away from the back of the group to hold off their pursuers. Again, the King moved as if to halt but the Smalljon and others caught him and pressed him forward.
"He was like a brother to me," the King growled, "He was-"
"He was brave," Catelyn scolded, "Make his bravery mean something."
Two men guarded the door, armed with spear and shield, and the Northmen fell on them like thunder. The Frey men held for a heartbeat, then broke. Desperation had made the Northmen strong. There could be no mercy, no breaking, no relenting. Steel armor was good, but frenzy was better. Dacey took a long gash on her arm, but she scarcely minded it as she drove her knife into the guard's neck.
The door opened and half a hundred Frey men greeted them in the yard. Dacey slammed the door shut again as soon as she opened it, quarrels thudding into the woodwork. "We need a new plan," she urged.
"The stables," The Smalljon growled, his legs already moving. The Northmen surged after him, realizing his intent. A community of smiths, liveries, and various shops huddled in the shadow of the Twins just outside the walls, and a small sally port let out near one of the stables there. If they could escape to that door, they could steal horses and ride as far and as fast as they liked.
Chaos reigned in the Twins, servants rushing this way, guards rushing that way. The Stark men stumbled upon a score of Tully men and nearly gutted them before they realized what they were. The King's face had become ash and his eyes were red. His uncle, his cousins, and so many friends had been left behind in that cursed dining room. A heart like the King's could only take so much before it broke in two.
Grieving could come later. For the nonce, it seemed that their pursuers had lost the scent. Sounds of chaos and confusion came from every direction, no more before than behind. The King and his guard had proper weapons now, and any Frey man they ran into was cut down quickly before any general alarm could be raised. How long had it been since the King's fateful dance? Moments or hours, Dacey could not say.
The sally port was right where the Smalljon remembered it. He must have marked it on their way in. They poured out in a rushing tumble, bloodied and gasping for breath. No Frey or Bolton men were in sight, the path was clear. Just a short distance along the riverside to the squat brown building that held their salvation. Just a hundred paces, just eighty now, just...
A man in Frey colors stepped out of the stables, flanked by a dozen men in full gear. To their left a dozen more emerged from around the corner of the fortress wall. Their clear leader smirked cruelly. Hosteen Frey. The biggest Frey and the dumbest, with a battleax for a face and a flagstone for a brain. Even alone and on equal terms, he was a match for any of their party, but fighting him and his band like this… this was hopeless. They could charge in an attempt to die fighting, but that was it.
"When you ran, like a little girl," Hosteen stated, his voice slurred, "I figgered you was going for the main gate, or the stables. Figgered everyone was going to try and get you at the gate, so I went to the stables." Hosteen took a crossbow from a man-at-arms at his side. "So I guess I get to answer yer question, Wolfie:" He smiled broadly. "It's me as gets to kill you."
The Northmen pulled into a tight knot around their king to prevent a clean shot. Hosteen lowered the crossbow, annoyance clear on his face. "Now come on then, I mean to ransom the rest of you lot, what's all this? Lay down your arms and there'll be mercy a plenty. The wolf pelt's the only one I want."
"Rot in hell," Patrek Mallister stated, just loudly enough to be heard over the roar of the river beside them.
"Right then," Hosteen sniffed and loosed a quarrel into the Smalljon's shoulder. "More fun this way."
"For the King! The King in the North!" Dacey screamed along with all the King's men, and then they clashed. She swiped a sword aside with her scavenged buckler and hit her opponent's shoulder with a covered thrust, but the blow did not cut through the mail. The wound in her arm ached, sapped her strength. The Frey man returned her ferocity in equal measure, and her whole body quivered with each blow she blocked. The guard of the King fought more like drunken brawlers than like nobles, with mud and blood mixing at their feet as they slipped and crashed and stumbled.
She deflected another blow, and another, but she felt herself waning. Her opponent was a man nearly as tall as herself, and he was fresh. He had not been trying to run and fight in a torn dress, had not been punched in the face by a mailed fist. Victory was impossible. She would die here. She would die. She would...
Where the howl came, fear followed. These Frey men had heard that cry before. They had seen the power of the beast that made it. A quiver of terror ran through the Frey men, enough that they began to be pushed back. Dacey praised the gods in her heart and swung with newfound strength, her sword bashing the man's helm back.
"Come on you whoresons, fight like ya' mean it!" Hosteen bellowed, knocking the Smalljon to the ground with a contemptuous shove. "Fight like ya-"
The man's head came off in a single snap of Grey Wind's mighty jaws as the Direwolf appeared behind them. Another man it crushed with a paw the size of a bear's, and then the Frey men were running, the beast running down one of them after another.
"For the NORTH!" Dacey screamed, laughing and crying with what remained of the King's honor guard.
The king himself sat not far away, cradling a pool of red hair, weeping openly. All at once the men silenced their revelry. Lady Catelyn Stark had been cut nearly in two, from shoulder to navel. She lived for the moment, gasping for breath in great sobs, but that would not last for long.
"My son," She breathed, "My SON, you must live. You must flee. Flee. Save the girls, Robb, The girls, save..." and then her eyes rolled to the back of her head and she stopped.
The Smalljon, bruised and bleeding in a hundred places, stooped to pick the corpse of Catelyn Stark up. The King watched her body leave his arms, worldless. When the King did speak, it was without breath, almost inaudible. "She took the blade meant for me, she.."
"We have to move, your Grace," Dacey insisted. "We have to go."
The King blinked, nodded, then shook his head and stood. There were horses aplenty for all of their small party to mount. They strapped Lady Stark's lifeless body to the back of one like so much wheat. The horses wheeled and bucked, unused to the presence of the great wolf. Robb's own horse, a small chestnut pacer, nearly threw him into the river at the first chance, and all of his guard's hearts leapt their throats.
But the King controlled the beast with a tug of the reins and brought the horse around to face them.
Then a quarrel sprouted from his belly.
One of Hosteen's men, sprawled on the ground, half-crushed by Grey Wind, had found the crossbow and shot Robb dead in the stomach from half a hundred yards away. Dacey watched in horror as the King lost control of his horse and the stupid beast reared and threw both itself and the King into the raging river twenty feet below.
"ROBBB!" She screamed, and whipped her horse around to the river's edge. The chestnut lay broken on the stones below, but the King, the King… "I can't see him!" She yelled. "The King is lost!"