|Posted on April 15, 2012 at 9:30 AM|
This story is actually taken from amuch longer A Song of Ice and Fire fan-fiction piece (called “Blood of the Direwolf” ), that I wrote last year. Thisis basically the climax of that novella, in which Arya takes up arms againstBowen Marsh and the other members of the Night’s Watch mutiny. However, I feltlike it worked as its own short story, so I’ve re-edited it, and added somestuff, to make it feel more self-contained. Don’t worry, all you really need toknow is that Arya has returned to Westeros, and has formed an alliance withMance Rayder and the Wildlings. With the help of the Shadow Tower, they areattempting to retake Castle Black, and avenge Lord Snow’s murder. Arya hasridden ahead of the main Wildling host, in order to infiltrate the castle insecret, and open the gates for Mance and Tormund to attack. What she discovers,however, is more terrifying than any nightmare.
Arya Stark struck out across the winter wastes like a falcon in pursuit. She had been in the company of others so long, that she’d forgotten how fast and lean Snowball was. Now she was alone again, with the wind whipping through her hair, and the frost spraying up around her. Arya rose in her saddle and kicked again. Snowball nayed, hammering the white earth, as she raced across the Kingsroad. The Wall rose up before them, sheer and unflinching; a curtain of hard ice and rock that made Arya gasp. This is truly the end of the world, she thought. She knew it wasn’t of course. She knew there were trees and mountains and cold rivers beyond it, but that didn’t make it any less breathtaking.
As the Wall grew before her, she slowed Snowball to a trot. She was riding parallel to it now, keeping a fair distance, less sentries from Castle Black spy her approach. Surprise is the key. Surprise is our greatest weapon. That had always been Arya Stark’s advantage. No one expected a little girl to fight back, but fight she did. From King’s Landing to Harrenhal; from the Trident to Braavos; from White Harbor to the Wall, she had fought. And while all the great warriors and knights and kings lay rotting the earth, she had survived.
Day became night, as the towers of Oakenshield finally emerged over the horizon. Arya ached all over. She couldn’t imagine how tired Snowball must feel. She stroked the destrier’s mane, and kissed him lightly. “Good boy,” she whispered. “We’re almost there. And then you can rest, and eat grain and barley till you heart’s content.” Arya had not considered what to do with her horse once she ascended the Wall. Snowball was a White Harbour mount, and was trained for snowy terrain, but there was little in the way of grass this far north. Perhaps he would wander back to Queenscrown, though she doubted it. Hopefully she could return before the horse became too hungry.
It was pitch black by the time they arrived at the fort. From afar it looked somewhat impressive, with tall grey spires sprouting out of thick oaken archways. Up close, however, it was a sad, old keep; its walls cracked and crumbled across the snow. The smell of damp wood and rotting cinder clung to the air. Exhausted, Arya practically slid off Snowball. She opened a sack of oats for her loyal horse, and watched him wolf them down eagerly, before collapsing on the ground himself.
“Now you go easy on those,” she told him. “That’s your only food until I get back, unless you’ve taught yourself to hawk.” She scratched him along his mane, just like he liked, before hugging him farewell. “I’ll be back in a few days,” Arya promised. She hoped it wasn’t a lie.
Oakenshield was not difficult to get into. A few harsh kicks split the small gate open. With Castle Black so close, this fort had never seen much use. Even at the height of the Night Watch’s power, Oakenshield was only ever utilised as a watch-tower. It hadn’t been manned in over a five-hundred years, and she could see why. Rats and ravens staffed the tower now, and they did not take kindly to this stranger from the moors. Arya climbed the spiral staircase at the rear of the keep, and found a descent sized room to spend the night. It was dark and damp, but wrapped in her furs after a long ride, sleep came easily to Arya.
* * *
That night, frightening visions invaded Arya’s mind. She dreamt that icy claws were scratching at her arms and chest. She saw a white landscape, bathed in an eerie shadow. Fierce storm clouds were rolling across a grey sky. There were figures all around her, tearing at her skin. They were dead men, with yellow, rotting skin, and black holes where their eyes should be. In the distance, Arya could see a host of white wraiths, galloping across a sea of red snow. They were demons, carved of ice, and their armour shone like glass. They rode dead horses, and their swords were cold and sharp. She heard a war-horn screech above the winds, and its song made Arya’s skin burn. She tried to scream, but she had no voice. The demons were at her throat, and she could see the ground around her growing red.
Arya woke with a gasp. Impossible, she thought. She reached up and felt her brow, slick with sweat. She looked down and saw red gashes across her wrists. At first Arya feared she had been attacked during the night, but she quickly realised that the wounds had been self-inflicted. She rubbed her head, and tried to slow her breathing. “What were those things?” she whispered to the darkness, but she knew exactly what they were. White wraiths on dead horses. The Others had awoken in the north.
The room had not changed since she fell asleep several hours ago. The walls creaked and peeled, while rats scurried to and fro across the wet floor boards. She heard a dripping sound from somewhere downstairs. Outside she could feel the winter winds howling with menace. A storm is coming, she realised. A bad one. They must take Castle Black soon, or they would all perish on the Wall.
Arya made her way up several more sets of ladders, before finally emerging at the top of the Wall. The dawn air hit her like a wave of ice. She could feel her joints clench and stiffen; her blood freezing beneath her skin. Shivering, she approached the icy parapets, and looked out over the edge of the world. Far below lay a dark forest. It stretched out towards a row of pale mountains. The trees shook and swayed in the violent winds, and Arya took several steps backwards. She didn’t know what she expected of the world beyond the Wall, but this was not it. The lands were so bleak and lifeless. It filled Arya was a sense of impending dread. She was still half a sleep, and the nightmare had rattled her nerves. Shaking, she climbed back inside the tower to regroup. I just need some food in my belly, she told herself, but it didn’t help. The smell in Oakenshield was terrible, but at least it held some semblance of warmth.
She waited until the sun had risen, before she resurfaced again. The chill was no less brutal, but at least she could see properly now. Pulling her furs up over her chin, Arya began the slow trek westward, towards Castle Black. The top of the Wall was wide enough to fit four men abreast, with stone ledges on either side. But from this height, Arya felt as though she stood upon the edge of a knife. A knife that carved through the realms of men; with a dark, swaying forest to her right, and a sea of snow to her left.
The wind howled and slashed at her face, and a great panic seized her mind. I am on the edge of oblivion, she told herself. Terrifying thoughts coursed through her, as her feet scrambled across the icy surface of the Wall. She could see Castle Black in the distance, cutting through the white haze like a dagger. No, not a dagger; a noose, hanging from the grey clouds. A noose, let down by the Gods to end her misery. A gallows, like the one they made for her father.
Stop it, she told herself. You are not some scared little mouse. You are Arya, of House Stark. You have trained under the Faceless assassins and the First Sword’s of Braavos. They are the ones who should be afraid; not you. Syrio Forel’s words echoed in her mind: Fear cuts deeper than swords. Fear cuts deeper than swords.
At her darkest moments, Arya would often whisper that revenge would warm her soul, and fill the place where her heart had been. But she knew that was a lie. Killing Bowen Marsh would not bring her brother back. She had to keep her nerve, and remember her training. She had to remember her father’s words—winter is coming—for their way was the old way. Planning and discipline won battles, not anger; not hatred.
As she drew closer to the winch above Castle Black, she spotted someone leaning over the edge of the Wall. He was cloaked in black from head to toe, and his breath painted the air white. A horn was strapped to his belt. I must not let him use it. She crouched low, her footsteps as light as snowflakes. The man was staring out beyond the Wall, and Arya could see that beneath his hood, his head was shaved down to the scalp. A dagger appeared in her hand as she approached the Night’s Watchman. As silent as a shadow. She paused. There were tears in the man’s eyes. He was crying. Quick as lightening, she slashed the horn from his cloak and snatched it off him.
“Wha—!” he cried, turning. He reached for his sword, but Arya brought the dagger to his throat, pressing hard.
“Quiet,” she whispered. He released the hilt and took a step back.
“Please…” he managed, wiping the frozen tears from his eyes. “Please, have mercy.”
“Mercy!” Arya shot back. “Why should I show you mercy? You killed Jon.”
“No,” he stammered. “I never… Jon was my friend. He was my brother.”
“He was my brother!” she spat, pressing the blade deeper into his flesh. A trickle of blood rolled down his neck. “You betrayed him; all of you. I should slit your throat right here.” The watchman stared at her, unblinking. Finally, he sunk to his knees.
“You’re her… You’re Arya Stark… aren't you? Jon; he tried to save you. He did. But Marsh… Marsh and the others…”
“I know what they did. Why didn’t anyone stop them?”
“Some tried, but… but Marsh had too many men. The wildlings fled; the King's men fled… Anyone who fought back was killed or locked up... It was a bloodbath.” The man was shaking now, and not from the cold. “Marsh… he said it was for the good of the Watch. He said Jon was a wildling now, and was handing the realm over to our enemies; that he was threatening to lead an attack on Winterfell.” He fell into the ice and curled up in a ball. “Marsh says that the Wall is his now, and that we are… his slaves. He says he is the Night’s King reborn.” Fresh tears rolled down his face, and froze to his cheeks. “I didn’t want this!” he screamed. “I didn’t want any of this!”
“Quiet!” Arya hissed, but the man shoved her away, and stumbled to the edge of the walk-way.
“I should have fought back, like Pyp and Grenn. But I… I was… so afraid.” The man climbed up onto the ledge overlooking the Haunted Forest. “Jon was my friend.”
“What are you doing?” Arya cried.
“I can’t go back down there. Marsh sees everything. He knows you’re coming. He knows about you and the wildlings…” The man stared into Arya eyes, and an age of sorrow passed between them. “You are all going to die…” And then he was gone. Arya ran to the edge of the Wall, just as his body vanished into the dark forest below. Terror coursed through Arya’s body. Marsh knows.
She turned her head south, and saw the faint glow of Tormund’s host through the winter fog. They are marching into an ambush. She leaned over the edge of the winch and opened her mouth to scream, but nothing came out. It was no use. She was trapped a league above the world, with no way to warn them. Below she could see the spires of Castle Black pointing up at her like charred blades. Barbed iron barricades had been raised all along the castle walls, braced with large wooden beams and ice-sacks. Arya could make out a wide moat dug along the gates’ perimeter. Marsh had turned Castle Black into a fortress, protected from every angle. The wildlings would crash against it like waves on a cliff. They would freeze before they broke into the keep. It was protected from every angle… except from above.
Arya opened the cage, and climbed into the winch. She grasped its gears, and began to heave with all her might. The machine groaned and cracked, breaking loose from the morning frost. Fear cuts deeper than swords. Slowly, the machine began to move, clicking as it descended along the face of the Wall. The wind howled with eerie menace, as Arya lowered herself into the bowels of Castle Black. How did it come to this? She asked herself, as the turrets of the Night’s Watch closed around her like the icy claws of her nightmare.
* * *
The winch shuddered to a halt, just above the training yard of Castle Black. The grounds were empty and vile, with streaks of muddy footprints woven across the fresh snow, and black ice creeping up the stone walls like cobwebs. The smells of rust and rot and spoilt leather crawled up Arya’s nostrils, making her gag. The gears had clenched shut with about twenty feet to go, so Arya was forced to climb the rest of the way. She grabbed onto the cold, crumbling bricks beside the winch, and started to edge her way down. Just as the she was about to set foot in the yard, Arya slipped on a gob of frost and fell face-first into the filthy snow. Cursing, she sloshed to her feet, and stumbled onto an armoury trestle for balance. The frost made her skin scream with the pain, and she could feel her heart racing. Her eyes darted along the castle walkways, but no sentries had been roused by the clatter. Arya shook the muck from her face, and rubbed her hands together for some warmth.
She had made it into the castle grounds at last, and without being seen. She knew she ought to be relieved, but the watchman’s words still echoed in her mind. Marsh sees everything… He knows you’re coming… the Night’s King reborn… Something wicked was festering within these walls; she could feel it. For all her guile, Arya still felt like a mouse in a nest of vipers. A mouse with fangs, she thought, grinding her teeth. So far, the only living thing she’d come across, since leaving the wildlings, had been the watchman on the Wall. But his words had put the fear of the Stranger into Arya’s heart. What evil plots has Marsh hatched since Jon’s murder? She asked herself, as she recalled the man’s body vanishing into the Haunted Forest (for the hundredth time).
This would be difficult, and could get ugly very quickly. The men of the Night’s Watch were hardened fighters, and Castle Black was their most heavily manned stronghold. She knew she could not triumph through strength of arms, but if she could just slay Marsh… then the rest may follow. Cut off the head, and the body will fall, she had heard her father say once. She had to be quick; quick and deadly. With their presence known, the wildlings could only hold out for so long.
Arya made her way into the shade of the north tower. She pulled her furs tight around her neck, and tried to think of some place warm. The winds above the Wall had been deathly cold, but somehow it was even worse down here. As she’d lowered the winch along the face of the Wall, Arya’s bones had practically ached from chill. The warmth in her blood had slowly faded, and now only ice-water coursed through her veins. As she approached the tower, the air in the castle yard sent a razor of menace along her spine. Winter had truly come, and Arya was staring it square in the face.
Arya could make out a faint flicker of light, in the tower window. She crept towards it slowly, making sure to keep to the shadows. The light moved and shimmered, casting strange shadows across the snow. Arya’s throat tightened as the voices of men wafted through the night air. They were quiet at first, but became louder as she neared the base of the tower steps. Arya gave the walkways another quick glance, before ascending the wooden steps to the tower entrance. A deep voice quavered within. The words were muffled, but Arya could make out bits and pieces.
“…Let them come!” the voice cried. “…Wildlings dogs… let them see…” A chorus of shouting and stamping drowned out the speaker. Arya crouched low, sucked in some air, and pressed her ear to the iron door. “Brothers… behold,” said the same voice. “Our enemies rise up from all sides of the Wall. Wildling savages and Northern rebels… They slither towards us like maggots to a wounded beast. Even the Shadow Tower has betrayed us… and yet the castle is still ours!” Cheers erupted from within the tower. Bowen Marsh, Arya thought. It must be him.
“The White God,” the voice continued. “He protects us. He sends a great storm of ice and shadow, to drown out our foes.” What madness is this? Arya pondered, not daring to breath. “For we are the Night’s Watch… and the night protects us!”
A hundred voices chanted back, “The night is our shield; the winter our sword!” The chanting continued, louder and more savage. “The night is our shield; the winter our sword!” Arya stood back up, and took a step away from the door. They have all gone mad. She looked down and saw that her hands were shaking violently. She watched in horror as a vein of frost crept over the door frame, and suddenly Arya felt very dizzy. “The night is our shield; the winter our sword!” Arya staggered back further. What is happening? She gasped. Her eyes darted towards the window on the second story of the tower. Without thinking, she grasped at a crack in the bricks, and scrambled up the wall.
Her hands were numb by the time they closed around the edge of the window, and with her last ounce of strength, Arya hoisted herself over the sill and felt hard wood slam into her chest. The chanting was much louder now. “The night is our shield; the winter our sword!” They are right below me, she realized. Arya tried to move, but her arms and legs would not obey. She squirmed forward slightly, and saw that she was lying on a wooden platform, just above a mob of cloaked figures.
Inside the tower was—what looked like—a great dining hall, with long wooden tables and row after row of chairs. However, the figures were not sitting. They were kneeling on the stone floor, with their heads and arms thrust up to the ceiling. Arya could make out at least a hundred men, all garbed from head to toe in black furs; with shaved heads beneath their hoods. And instead of food and wine, the counters were covered in swords and shields and axes and spear-heads. The weapons were all crusted with black stains, and Arya could make out the smell of dry blood from where she lay. At the far end of the hall, a man stood atop an oaken plinth. His hands were raised as well; an expression of mad delight adorned his face. Marsh! Arya almost roared, but she was too weak to move. Above Marsh hung a row of severed heads, skewered along a spiked frame. Their eyes were sunken and their mouths twisted open in one final moment of terror. Some of the faces were old men; others looked no older than Robb. To her relief, Arya could not see Jon among the mounts.
Finally, Marsh lowered his hands, and the chanting petered out. “I have sent half of our forces to Queensguard, to launch a surprise assault on the traitor Mallister and his wildling pets. Tormund’s host will attack us from the south… I have seen it.” Many of the men threw up their swords and shouted angrily, or stamped their spears against the floor. “Fear not brothers, for the White God will quell the fires of our enemies, and banish the light from their hearts. I shall slay the Red Whore, and offer up her womb as a sign of our devotion. May the Lord of Ice and Shadow cloak us with his might.”
“Lord of the Others defend us,” the men recited in unison. “For the night is our shield; and the winter our sword!”
“Get to your posts!” Marsh shouted above the hymn. “They will be here within the hour… And the snows will run red this night!” The mob cheered once more, but now their chants had transformed into a thunderous war-cry. With a whirl of his cloak, Marsh turned and marched through a door at the rear of the hall. Several guards scurried after him, as the rest of the men picked up their weapons and filed out through the iron door below Arya.
It wasn’t until the hall was completely empty, that warm blood started to course through Arya’s veins again. Her limbs twitched awake, and she struggled to her feet. White God… Red Whore… Lord of the Others… Arya’s mind was almost as dazed as her body. Her thoughts flicked back to Old Nan’s tales of the Night’s King. Had the Others really returned to Westeros? Had Marsh and his men pledged themselves to the White Walkers? Or had they simply gone insane. Arya was inclined towards the latter, but something had happened here that she could not explain. Some queer spell had paralysed her body. It’s not possible, she thought, climbing down from the platform. Then again, the wildlings had often spoken of the Others as if they had come back. Either way, Marsh has to die.
As soon as her feet hit the floor, Arya was running across the dining hall to the door at the far end; the one Marsh and his guards had exited through. She opened it cautiously, drawing Titan, her Braavosi longsword, as she did. A shiny staircase rose up before her, like a coiled snake, ready to strike. Quickly and deadly, Arya reminded herself. Cut off the head, and the body will follow. Arya began to sprint up the steps. Titan pointed out before her as she ascended the tower. With head crouched low, her legs were a flurry of movement.
“Shhh…” murmured a voice above. “What’s that?” Arya turned a corner and found two men staring at her. Before they could even react, she flicked her sword across one of their throats, and drove it through the chest of the other. She pulled the blade free, and kept on up the stairs, with nary a second glance. She heard one of the men gurgling in pain behind her. There was no point hiding the bodies. The rest of the Marsh’s men had gone to defend the southern barricade against Tormund.
Arya turned and found another Black Brother staring at her. “What the—?!” he cried. This one was faster. He tore out his sword and lunged at her. Arya swerved left and slashed Titan across the man’s ankle. He cried out in pain, but swung at her again. Arya backed away from the man. She had the higher ground now, but this one was strong. He stabbed at her in anger. Arya deflected the blow and kicked him hard in the belly. The man stumbled back, tripped, and went tumbling down the stone steps. “Fucking bitch,” he moaned. Arya draw her sword across the man’s neck. Gouts of blood poured from his open throat, and his eyes faded. Quickly and deadly, Arya remembered. I cannot stop. Tormund will be here soon. She turned, and ran further up the stairs.
Arya could feel the element of surprise slipping from her grasp. She had to get to Marsh before the alarms were raised. She knew the Lord Commander’s quarters were just above her. If she could just get there in time…
Arya came at last to a set of wide wooden doors at the top of the staircase. She could hear angry voices filtering up the steps behind her. She kicked the doors open, slammed them shut again, and wedged her shield beneath the handles. The cold night air her hit her face like a slab of ice. She was outside once more; this time on a wide stone terrace, overlooking the interior of Castle Black.
Arya ran to the edge of the platform and looked down. Far below she could see the training yard again. It had been empty when she’d arrived; now it was filled with dozens of tiny figures. The men of the Night’s Watch ran to and fro like ants, sifting out of the yard, up ladders and along the walk-ways, into watchtowers and murder holes, and along the walls that guarded the castle. Alarms rang out, long and terrible. Something was happening.
Beyond the southern barricades, a sea of white stretched out into the horizon. And there, just beyond the castle gates, a crowd of men were fanning out. It’s Tormund, Arya’s heart leapt into her throat. He has begun the attack. Among them, Arya could make out the giant, Wun Wun. He was clad in crudely fashioned steel, with a huge tree trunk slung over his shoulder. He heaved the butt of it against the castle gates with a shuddering thump. The Nightwatchmen began pouring arrows into the giant, but he heaved the trunk again. THUMP! More alarms rose up from the carnage below. The rest of Tormund’s host had split in two and were making their way around to the sides of the castle. Suddenly, Arya heard a great crash from behind her.
She spun around to find the wooden doors shaking. Shouts and curses shook the frame, and with each heave, Arya could see her direwolf shield splintering apart. Arya looked around for a place to hide. To her right were a pile of crates and trestles. Arya crouched down behind them, and pulled her hood tight over her face.
The sounds of battle filled the air, and mixed with the thump of the wooden doors, Arya covered her ears and wished she was anywhere but here. Arya heard her shield shatter, and the wooden door swung open with a bang.
“What the fuck is this!” she heard a man cry.
“It’s some shield… or something,” another replied. “Who would—?”
“It must be one of the prisoners,” said another. “Some of ‘em must’ve escaped. George and Olf are dead. Arge’s had half his head cut off.”
“I’m gonna gut that Red cunt!”
“You idiot. The Red Witch is with Marsh.”
“Come on! Let’s go check the dungeons… You two – guard the Lord Commander’s quarters, but whatever you do… don’t go in there. He and the Red God’s slut need some alone time.” The men laughed. Arya waited until their footsteps had faded away, and then she waited some more. She climbed out from behind the crates and shook the filth from her cloak. Her direwolf shield lay in splinters on the ground. On the far side of the terrace was a narrow walkway, which curved around to a dark spire. The spire jutted high above any of the other towers in Castle Black, and Arya knew it had to be Marsh’s quarters.
Arya ran to the walkway, and crouched behind the parapets. She edged her way towards Marsh’s spire. Below her, men were shouting over the wail of war horns. The two armies were exchanging arrow heads, as Wun Wun continued to batter the gates with all his might. THUMP! THUMP! THUMP! Arya knew they could not hold out for much longer. They needed Mance’s host. They needed the Shadow Tower men. But they were probably fighting Marsh’s men at Queensguard. Arya found herself wishing she’d stayed with the wildlings. As she got closer, she could see two spearmen guarding the entrance to the spire. They were talking to each other. Arya stopped, and held her breath.
“What if the wildlings break through?” one was saying.
“Well,” replied the other. “I imagine they’ll fuck us… and then eat us. Hopefully, not in that order.”
“But the White God… he will protect us.”
“Oh, spare me… White Gods, Red Gods… Old Gods, Drowned Gods; they can all kiss my ass.” The man held up his spear and gave an awful grin. “This is the only god I need.”
The other man looked at him wearily. “You had best not let Marsh hear you talking like that.”
“Marsh? Marsh would’ve been hanged by now, if the whole damned realm weren’t torn to pieces. He kills the Lord Commander, and then has the gall to call Ser Mallister a traitor. No, the Others can have Marsh… if he loves ‘em so much.”
Arya stood up from the shadows and pointed Titan at the two men.
“Who the fuck?” One of the men exclaimed. His surprise turned to laughter as he looked at Arya and her enormous sword.
“Must be one of the prisoners,” said the other. “Garth said some might have escaped. Where’d you get that sword, sweetie. Give it here.” The man reached out to grab her, and Arya snapped the sword across his hand. “Ahh!” the man cried out, dropping his spear.
“You little bitch,” the other man roared. He thrust his spear at Arya chest. She side-stepped, deflecting the blow into the bleeding man. Arya lunged forward. She slashed at the spearmen, but he blocked her with his gauntlet.
“Where is Marsh?!” Arya yelled, wrenching her blade free. The man ignored her, and swung at her temple. She ducked it just in time and drove Titan hard into the man’s shin. His legs buckled from the blow, and he dropped his spear. She scooped it up, twirled once, and punched the point of the spear right through the man’s throat. He let out a long, terrible groan, and collapsed.
The other man was cowering on the floor beside him; his glove soaked with blood. “Please,” he begged. “Mercy. I don’t care about the White God; honest I don’t. I just didn’t want Marsh to kill me, like… like the others.” Arya felt a pang of sympathy, and so she knocked him out with the hilt of her sword. She looked over her shoulder, but there was no one there. Every able bodied man was down on the castle walls, fighting the wildlings.
Arya gazed up at the thick set of iron doors. They were engraved with the image of a wolf, baying at the moon, with the vow of the Night’s Watch printed below in curling type. The handles were taller than Arya. She grabbed them both, and pulled. The doors creaked open slowly, and a rush of warm air hit Arya in the face. She stepped into the dark corridor, and heaved the doors closed behind her. The sounds of battle faded to nothing, as they sealed shut.
Arya was surrounded by silence again; silence and darkness. Her left hand found the wall, with Titan stretched out in her right. She moved forward slowly, as her eyes adjusted to the darkness. The air inside the Lord Commander’s tower was strangely warm, yet the walls and floor were slick with ice. As she moved, Arya saw shapes in the darkness; strange figures, dancing. She thought she smelt rotting flesh. Visions of her mother appeared; her body floating in the stream. She heard people cheering, as her father’s head hit the gallows. She saw Joffrey’s face, curling into a smile. Then Arya was a wolf again, bounding through a field of snow. Her fur was crusted with ice, and she was chasing a familiar scent.
All of a sudden, the visions were gone. Arya felt tears running down her face. It’s not real, she told herself. It’s just another trick. She wiped her face and scowled. Nymeria, where are you? Then… she heard laughter; a cold, sick, venal cackle that made her shiver. A blue light flickered at the far end of the corridor; the silhouette of a doorway, slightly ajar. Arya approached it, ever so slowly. The laughter continued, becoming louder and more twisted. As she got closer to the door, she could make out a woman weeping.
“Do as you will,” the woman croaked. “You may defile my body, but the Lord of Light shall protect my soul.” Her voice was throaty, and flavoured with the accents of the east.
“You have no power here, priestess,” a man replied. The man’s voice was Marsh’s, but his tone was much deeper, and raspier than before. “The White God now has dominion over this place. He has chosen me as his weapon against the Andals. His agents in the Shadowlands have found the dragons. Once they are destroyed, the last of your master’s power will be drained from this world.” Arya approached the door, as quietly as she could. She crouched down. Titan was shaking in her hand. The blue light spiralled against the wall, and she was afraid to look into the room. She knew she had to move quickly, but something made her hesitate.
“R’hllor defeated you once…” the woman said, clearly in pain.
“Azor Ahai is dead. I slew him myself.” Marsh spat back.
“Fool,” the woman hissed. “His body is slain… but his spirit endures. The direwolf has escaped; has he not?” There was a moment of silence then, and Arya could hear only a dripping sound.
“He will be found,” Marsh said, after a while. “And once he is, I will sew your head to his body, and bury you a thousand leagues beneath the ice, where no warmth may reach you.” Arya heard a wet slice, and the woman screamed. Marsh began to laugh again; a terrible and blood-curdling. “You have failed, my lady. Once these savages are dealt with… it will begin.” Arya began to shiver violently. She could feel her blood freezing beneath her skin. No, she told herself. Not this time. Arya stood up, and entered the room.
Inside stood Marsh, wrapped in his huge black furs. There was a knife in his hand, but instead of steel, the blade looked as though it was made of ice. It looked razor sharp, and seemed to glitter as it moved, throwing blues and pinks across the stone walls. A woman was there also. She had red hair with streaks of grey. Her hands were raised above her, with a hundred wounds dug into her arms and wrists; many of them fresh. Her palms where fastened to the wall with nails. She was naked, with blood running all the way down her body and into a bucket of ice where her feet were planted. The expression on her face was full of pain and sadness. Marsh bore no expression. His eyes were empty. On the left side of the room lay two dead bodies – a thin, older woman, with a whiff of hair on her lip, and a young, homely girl with rotting skin on the side of her face. Marsh lowered his knife at the sight of Arya. The red woman raised her head slowly, and stared in quiet sorrow.
No one said anything for a while, and the drip of the ice bucket was the only sound. Arya was the one to break the silence. “It’s over Marsh,” she said. “Lay down your sword.” Marsh tilted his head, as though trying to figure out a puzzle.
“It is over,” he replied at last. “It’s all over.” Marsh leapt at Arya, slashing at her face. Arya ducked the swing, and rolled left. She held Titan out in front of her, circling her foe. Marsh’s ice blade glimmered blue, then purple, then pink, then red. He lunged again. Arya side-stepped, and delivered a deep cut to his leg. Marsh staggered past her, but didn’t make a sound. His leather was torn wide open at the knee, but no blood came out. This time Arya went on the offensive. She swung Titan across Marsh’s neck, but he backed off just in time. Arya stabbed right, then left, hitting nothing but air. She wheeled around quickly and saw her opening. She delivered a hard slice towards Marsh underarm, but he caught the blow with his blade, and Titan suddenly exploded into fragments. Arya was blown into the wall, as her sword disappeared into a million tiny pieces on the floor. Her forearm screamed in pain, and she could taste blood. All that was left of Titan was a hilt, and it was so cold that it burnt Arya’s palm. She threw it to the side, and struggled across the floor, away from Marsh. No, she thought. No, how can this be?
She crawled towards the red woman, looking around for a weapon; anything to defend herself. There was nothing. Arya grabbed the woman’s legs, and whispered “please,” to no one in particular. Her mind searched for Nymeria, somewhere in the wild. She watched Marsh’s shadow approach her from behind, and rolled over to face her death.
“You must fight it Marsh,” the red woman cried. “There is goodness in you; I can feel it. You must not let him control you.” Marsh drew back his knife. His eyes were pale and unflinching. Arya felt the cold blade slide deep into her chest. She gasped aloud, and grabbed Marsh’s wrist with both hands. Maybe now I’ll get to see Jon again, she consoled herself. Marsh tried to pull the knife back out, but she held him firmly. He pulled again, and her grip tightened. She looked him dead in the eyes, and shook her head, mouthing the word “no”. Marsh’s eyes changed then; a twinkle of warmth appeared. Colour rushed back into his face. He relinquished the knife and fell onto the floor.
“Just leave me alone,” he whispered, shaking his head. His voice was different now “Just let me die.” He looked up at the red woman. “Forgive me,” he said, tears streaming down his face. “I didn’t want to do it. He made me. I can feel him always; like claws of ice, digging into my brain; twisting me to and fro like a puppet on a string.” His gaze turned to Arya. “Please kill me. Please… just kill me.” Arya felt the world grow silent around her, as if she were underwater. She slid the blade out of her chest, and swung hard across Marsh throat. Blood exploded out of his neck, and his head went spinning across the wet stones. Arya fell back against the wall, dizzy with pain. Blood was pouring out of her chest, and it mixed with Marsh’s on the floor. The ice knife was melting away in her hand, and she let it slip through her fingers.
“Little one!” she heard the red woman say. “Little wolf child… you did it…” The woman had pulled herself free of the wall.
“The western gate…” Arya groaned. “You have to open it… You have to let Mance into the castle.”
“I will, Arya Stark. I promise.” The world faded into darkness, and Arya felt warm hands press against her chest. Everything went black.