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Chapter 018

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Robert Baratheon's son

Still wearing his cloak, Mance knelt closer to the executioner's block, turning his back on Ser Daven, by word of m'lord Baelish his headsman for that day.

He put his cheek on a stained wood and stared forward evenly with murky brown eyes, neither cocky, nor craven, a soul who had made his peace.

The dark hood of the cloak concealed the path the sword would have to cross towards his neck, crumpled under his unruly hair, but the thick black wool in-wrought with thin red threads was no threat to Ser Daven's shiny steel, which would soon cut through it like through butter, sweeping away the cloak and the man, for good.

The dirty looking large white surface of the cloak, adorned with white and grey furs on its hem, hung harsh and unbending on both sides of the block, leaving the ugly red skin on the prisoner's lower legs bare for all too see. His feet were dirty and so very white, as if they had never seen the sun.

As probably they did not, in the great vastness of the north, thought Gendry, horrified with the offender's silent bravery. The little he learned about it in King's Landing, and from Yoren, when they headed for the Wall, spoke of an inhospitable barren land, not fit for human dwelling. As if the Flea Bottom was any better, he considered. North or south, for the commoners it is all the same. We die by the sword.

"Take off his cloak first, I want to see his neck!" commanded Littlefinger, sounding full of terrible suspicion, but a peaceful deep voice opposed him, reaching the ears of the people like rain falling on the parched lands in the heat of the long summer, or a delicate ointment soothing a grievous wound.

"To humiliate a man sentenced to lose his life is a great sin against the will of the Seven," said the Elder Brother who somehow appeared behind Gendry's back with Lady Sansa on his arm. "His death will be punishment enough. Let us rather pray for him to the gods in our hearts, as is good and proper."

Ser Daven took the stance to carry out the sentence, and Littlefinger, for once, had nothing more to say, impatiently tugging on his goatee.

The sword swung, singing its bloody song of many winters.

And hit only strong metal where there should have been softness of nerves and skin, with a resounding clang.

Mance

"And now, my lords, we're going to talk some more," said Mance Rayder, accomplished, holding Ser Daven's head backward to the block by his hair, the knight's own sword pressed sharply against his naked throat. Blond curls gave Ser Daven an innocent youthful look, but his blue-green eyes were of age, and they waited calmly to die, just like Mance's, moments ago.

When the Elder Brother came to see him in the dungeons and told him to run through the hidden exit, Mance refused. There was nowhere he could go without his horse. Patience was in the stables, guarded by the soldiers, and in the low hills around Harrenhal a lone man running would be like a single hare trying to outrun a pack of wolves. There would be no way he could reach King's Landing.

"Kill him! Archers!" Littlefinger shouted orders to Ser Bonifer who only shook his head, calling the more hot-headed soldiers from his garrison to stand down with a practised gesture of his arm.

The Lannister soldiers did not move a single finger, and the confused smallfolk gaped and mutely witnessed how the much wanted execution was delayed.

"He's a Lannister, my lord," said Ser Bonifer, as if that explained everything. "You've been in the Vale for too long. You wouldn't know how Lord Tywin punished the brave companion who cut Ser Jaime's hand. Nor how Ser Jaime threatened Lord Edmure Tully with launching his infant son into the walls of Riverrun if he didn't surrender that castle. There is no hurry here. We should parley for Ser Daven's release."

"Apprehend the monk then! He is in league with Mance Rayder since the Quiet Isle!" Littlefinger tried instead.

"Seven bless your soul, Lord Baelish, I had no idea who this man was until today," retorted the Elder Brother in unfeigned sincerity. "And you apparently did. Does that make you his accomplice?"

A bald elderly soldier with large bandage all over his face pointed accusingly at the Elder Brother and Gendry, bellowing from the last line of Ser Bonifer's garrison: "The boy threatened to smash my head with a warhammer if I didn't tell him where the prisoner was! Then this monk ventured into the dungeons to see him, wearing armour, and exited only wearing his cloak!"

"M'lord," Gendry turned to Baelish, doing his best to sound like an oaf, Mance noted with interest.

No, they are not helping me. I have to get through this on my own, he thought, gathering his courage, when Robert's bastard continued, "Ye know what m' mother did best of all. This man told whores were no good, so I lost me temper and broke his nose, is all. I'm a smith, I work with hammer. I also heard him say the Lady Sansa was a bitch and that he'd be willing to do a great favour to the realm by bedding her and teaching her lessons in faith."

Littlefinger's face turned from sallow to green, "Good soldier, have you ever mentioned the Lady Sansa?"

"The part about the lessons, aye, but-" the man's face glowed all too clearly with lust and the next call for archers Lord Baelish uttered was the first one that they answered without hesitation. A corpse feathered with many arrows hit the ground. No one bothered to remove it, and Mance Rayder was glad he could finally continue with what he had in mind.

It was time to teach the kneelers a lesson about the North.

"I am sorry, Ser Daven, for what a word of a wildling is worth," he told his captive gently, a hollow forming in his stomach from what he was about to do. "But not even I could fathom that Lord Baelish would choose you to be my executioner so that he can have the good soldiers kill us both, in appearance by chance, if I tried anything foolish as I was bound to do."

Mance Rayder sat on the young man's stomach to press down his body and both arms with his superior weight, never removing the sword from his throat. The King of the Wildlings unsheathed a small knife he wore hidden in his smallclothes with the help of his left hand and his teeth. It was a harmless weapon, at a glance, yet oddly shaped and curved. He directed it towards the nose of a handsome young knight under him.

And clumsily peeled a small string of skin from the side of his nose with the knife, separating it from the flesh and bone meticulously slowly, while Ser Daven writhed, and meowed, and screamed, and finally cried like a baby.

"Cut it!" he whimpered. "Take it, please! It's too much pain…"

The murmur of fear and disapproval passed through the crowd witnessing the scene in disbelief, seeing how it was all truth and the Wildlings more bloodthirsty than all the songs and the tales.

"A parley, Ser Bonifer!" Mance said in an insane voice. "Here are my terms. You let me say whatever I want and speak for as long as I want, and I will let him go. If after I am done, all of you still believe I deserve death, so be it! All of you except Lord Petyr Baelish! I claim that he is not fit to judge me, lord of this castle or not! Best gag him so that he doesn't interrupt me all the time with his silky tongue."

Mance sat on the dais, his back towards the wall of the tower, dragging Ser Daven to half sit, half lay in front of him, supporting his wounded body with his own to ease his pain, and also making a living shield out of him against any attack the kneelers could think of. He could still feel the bile rising high up in his throat from what he did.

Ser Daven's face was like a bright red flower in a field of yellow wheat. The knight's sword lay flat over his belly and the wildling holding him was crushed and diminished by his own actions. The odd cloak opened slightly at his chest, showing a dull black breast plate, and other pieces of the mismatched armour he donned on his upper body with great haste.

"And in what shape will you leave Ser Daven?" Ser Bonifer asked in indignation. "Gutted like a pig?"

"Take it…" Ser Daven moaned. "I don't need a nose…"

A soldier fainted in the first row like a proper lady.

"He'll live," Mance said with the coldness he did not feel. "Which is more than many others in the North can say who have suffered the same fate."

"You have to let him be treated, at least," pleaded Ser Bonifer. "What you did was inhuman! Who's the best healer among you monks?"

More hands pointed at the Elder Brother, who had helped many a man, woman and child since he left the Quiet Isle.

"Lord Baelish, do you object?" Ser Bonifer asked.

His gagged lordship did not make so much as a grunt, for a group of Lannister soldiers already took Mance's words at face value, loyal to their lord. So the Elder Brother climbed up the dais, and to Mance's growing surprise called Brother Gravedigger to come up and help him.

Do they pity me? he thought. After I deceived them all about who I was and ignored the kind offer to run with my life?

"Another thing," said Mance, wishing to try the ice, pointing at Gendry. "You, boy, get all the bows and the arrows and pile them up over here. That is my condition to let him be treated. I will not get myself shot down like a raven for showing mercy."

When the collection was done, Gendry stepped down again and stood next to Sansa, who offered Mance an unreadable pungent look. He didn't know what to think. Are they all in league with Baelish? Is that the way of the South and the lies she warned me about? He returned her a glare worthy of a savage, full of galloping doubts.

Mance surrendered Ser Daven to the monks and paced the dais behind them alongside the tower wall, cowering in their shadow, not in fear, but to hide his maiden nerves. The right words would not come and he was not certain at all about how to achieve what he wanted.

When he finally came forward and faced them all, a dagger was thrown in his direction and he avoided it with ease, an unforced smile popping at his lips.

"I am a wildling and my name is Mance Rayder," he told them. "Those are the only truths you have learned about me from Lord Baelish. And if that is not enough I'm wearing half of your kneelers' armour, and a cloak hiding the movements of my body. You can try throwing steel at me, but the only likely consequence of it will be that you will lose your weapon."

"Where should I begin? How should I begin?" he wondered at the wind and at the clouds, making long strides up and down the dais. "How do I make you see what I have seen and understand why I may yet deserve to live?"

"I came down from the Wall dressed up as a bard, with six spearwives," he paused, almost breaking apart when he spoke of them to the multitude of strangers in Harrenhal, unworthy of their memory.

"They trusted me and followed my lead, but they were more than that. They were my companions," he had to force himself to continue. "We came to Winterfell to rescue a girl, married against her will to one Ramsay Bolton, a bastard of one of your southron lords, Roose Bolton."

"The Lord of Leeches!" shouted a baker from Harrenhal. "He scared us all!"

"Same as the Lord of Bones now," Mance said wryly with an odd smile. "Call him as you wish. Baelish here has already recited you all the titles of the Boltons. He knows them better than I. Their sigil is a flayed man. They have a special flavour to war against the Starks and skin them whenever the times allow. But those are the rumours, good people of Harrenhal! The innocent smallfolk will tell you that flaying is a thing of the past, in the kneelers' North, I mean, the North south of the Wall..."

Mance strived to get some air and went on, serious as a corpse: "So I descended with six spearwives all the way to Winterfell to rescue a girl. All the lords of the North gathered in Winterfell for Ramsay's wedding, in awe and in fear of him and his father. An insane looking youth with white hair of an old man, delivered him a bride in the godswood, dressed in white and grey. Ramsay called him his Reek when his guests would not hear. This Reek had a kraken embroidered on his chest, and he named the bride Arya Stark, for all to hear."

Lady Sansa's wail could be heard all over the black towers of Harrenhal, and she clutched Gendry to stay on her feet, but the boy was no support, leaning on her in equal part, his distress almost greater than hers.

"Take heart, my lady," Mance hurried to explain. "I said he called her that, but that girl wasn't Arya."

The King-beyond-the-Wall shot a black look at Baelish, who didn't move a muscle at his admission, before he went on, "But I believed that she was and that was the name of the girl we came to save in Winterfell, the six spearwives and I, at the bidding of her brother, Jon Snow, by the grace of the old gods Lord Commander on the Wall."

"So Ramsay wedded a girl, and bedded her," Mance said, darkly. "In less than a week, she was a ghost, frail and thin, her body full of bruises. He made her lay with dogs, and when the dogs would not obey his wishes, for they were more in tune with nature's desires than Ramsay and his favourite servants, he punished the dogs and he punished her."

"And that was how during the feasts in Winterfell, I sang of Bael the Bard, the wildling who fathered the next Lord of Winterfell many a year ago, and my six helpers posed as servants and whores. They were not very convincing, because they were soldiers equal to men in a different army than you kneelers know, and just like me they were the free folk. For that is who we are, first and above all."

"They were called Rowan, Holly, Frenya, Myrtle, Willow Witch-eye and Squirrel... Some of them got stolen as young girls, and some of them still waited to be stolen. Frenya had a child, she had left him at the Wall. But when it came to fighting, they fought like any man."

"So we watched the girl and her popping bruises. She was guarded day and night and we couldn't think of a safe way to approach her. And, every now and then, when we had a chance, we would kill off Ramsay's most faithful men, one by one. The households of the northern lords who came to the wedding, and to swear fealty to the new rulers of yourNorth, spoke of the ghosts in Winterfell. But the highborn knew better, and started smelling treason among each other. Hostilities filled the air like a smell of flowers in spring, and I knew it was going to come to swords among them soon when someone, other than us, killed a boy, Walder Frey he was called."

The King-beyond-the-Wall became lost, immersed in his recent past, haunting him in his waking state, hard to ignore, impossible to forget.

"I am a wildling," he said. "But I have never and I would never kill a child or a woman who was not a spearwife fighting against me. Or a man who was not a crow or a warrior. Not for vengeance or to gain power in any case. Maybe I'd do it for food, or to steel a woman, or in some stupid fight in wine haze, I cannot say. There is no food enough north of the Wall for all of us who still breathe."

"So I knew that the uneasy peace of Winterfell was nor going to last. I had to act. I had the spearwives approach this boy Reek when the snow started to fall heavily and buried Winterfell under its wing. We worked together and he saved the girl, jumping with her from the castle walls into deep snow."

"Ramsay was mad with loss of not one, but two of his favourite toys, and of his lawful claim to Winterfell, not that he needed one much if you ask me. Ramsay took Winterfell as a wildling could, burning, pillaging, killing. With the difference that he already had a castle or two somewhere else, so he didn't need another one, and most of us wildlings have nothing at all."

"I was captured by the Boltons," Mance said with burning hatred. "At first I accepted it because I did what I had come to do. The girl was freed. Three of my spearwives were killed in her escape and that was, I learned, a small mercy. Ramsay put me in a cage with the surviving three, hanging us high up on a chain stretched between the two towers of Winterfell still standing. He stripped us in tunics and smallclothes, and he took away my old cloak, the black of the Night's Watch, mended with the red threads of the free folk, jesting he would return it to me when I would need a shroud. We huddled together to last the night as it continued to snow."

The voice of the King-beyond-the-Wall lowered in a terrible rasp and all Harrenhal was listening.

"The first day he skinned the three dead spearwives in front of us as if they were dead animals, and covered us with threads of their skin for the night. 'For warmth', he said and he laughed."

"On a second day he flayed one of my surviving friends alive. It took her several hours to die, and she was lucky to die that fast, because the bastard was skilled and would let his victims live as long as possible."

"Our cloak had grown that night and the three of us cried until dawn, pressed against each other."

"On a third day we knew what would happen and I begged him to spare them and skin me instead. He let another spearwife run, making her believe she could escape, only to let his dogs after her, and then he skinned her alive."

"On a fourth day, my last surviving friend refused to run. She sobbed and begged him for mercy, knowing what was to come. She told him things he had never asked for. She told him all our names, that I was the King-beyond-the-Wall, and a friend of Jon Snow. She said I could get him a wildling princess for wife, a much more beautiful woman than the one Ramsay lost, and that I had an infant son."

"Ramsay spent all night flaying the last living one of the six spearwives who came with me to Winterfell."

"He told me it was in payment of his gratitude for all the useful things she had told him."

"And, m'lords, how my cloak has grown, in only four days!" Mance croaked with unseeing eyes blinded with tears, pulling his hair out, incoherent and wild. "Warm and lined with blood!"

He sank to the ground, forefront on the dais, and grabbed his head between his hands in horror of remembrance, forgetting to shield himself completely. Anyone could have killed him then and there but no one made a move to touch the sword. The quietness in Harrenhal grew deeper than on the inside of a tomb untouched for centuries.

"Continue, my lord," the voice of Lady Sansa trembled, sailing over the silence, "remember, you still have to go to Oldtown, where you may find your heart."

"On a fifth day" Mance managed finally, regaining some of his composure. The worst part was told, and the rest came easier. "Ramsay wrote a letter to Jon Snow, saying what he did and where he had me, asking him to give back his Reek and his wife, and the wildling princess, spilling some more haughty aurochs shit about his fake victories on the parchment. He must have been listening to all the wrong songs."

"Roose, his father, came to see Ramsay. They quarrelled under my cage. Roose called Ramsay a fool for writing. He told him to let Reek and false Arya Stark go, and enjoy his lordship. But Ramsay wouldn't listen and he still gave the letter to the raven."

"On a sixth day it was my turn to feel his knife. You've seen how Ser Daven was for a little piece of skin I took, merely to show you what flaying does to men. It makes everyone beg Ramsay to cut off the limb he touches, even the truly brave. Ser Daven did not move an eye when he believed that I, the wildling, was going to slit his throat, but flaying, my good people, flaying is a different thing..."

"Ramsay flayed me for weeks and I lost the count of time. Every day, he would take a bit of the skin on my legs, waiting for me to beg him to cut my leg off. Every night, my cloak was enlarged some more. When he would take both my legs, then he'd let me die, or that's what he told me. Or if I was amusing enough he was going to make me his Reek. I didn't believe him a single word. I expected him to cut off my legs or to make me his Reek, or anything else he wanted in his insane mind, no matter what I did or said. I had no illusion, all it would take was enough time. But I never begged him to cut any limb of mine, and that, alone, has kept me alive, for awhile. That, and the cloak made of skin, an offence crying to the old gods for vengeance, burning bright as the red of their watchful eyes always open on the great weirwoods of the north..."

"Some time into my ordeal, Roose came to see me and commented how he believed that the wildling women were made of sterner stuff, offending the memory of the six who had died at the hands of his bastard. He offered me a glass of red wine, and said that at least the King of the Wildlings was giving his bastard some long deserved amusement, which was going to keep him from seeking it where it could ruin him, offending the high lords, or killing his own father. Roose asked politely if I enjoyed the hospitality of Winterfell."

"I told him that his bastard should have killed me when he captured me for I would be much more amusing dead than alive. He just laughed to that and flayed a piece of my leg himself, and he seemed pleased when I began to scream. Or that's what I thought because his cold face never betrayed any feelings at all."

"But, my lords, the colour of every snow is different," Mance announced with mirth in his crying eyes. "Rumours of an army or armies approaching the castle came in gently, with the second autumn snow storm, on the lips of those serving the unwilling guests of the new masters of Winterfell. No one could leave since the wedding because the snow covered the passages and closed the ways. And Ramsay was reluctant to let the lords go, fearing treason from all sides."

"A boy, a mute, would then come and sit under my cage in the gloom of the night when the bastard would leave me drooling and weeping, unmanned and praying for my death. I would draw patterns in the air in desperation, and I dreamt of chewing my own legs off to stop the pain."

"I drew a map of Winterfell, the position and the number of the guards, the weak points and the exits, all I learned when the spearwives and I enjoyed the freedom of the castle. And the boy in his turn walked the battlements at daytime, climbed the turrets as a lackwit in service of some lord, repeating my amusing patterns in the air. He imitated them in as many high places he could reach without breaking his neck. And the eyes of the army, or armies, had seen it from the outside, hindered by the snow, hidden by the ever changing snow."

"When after quite some time I still had my legs, Ramsay promised me to flay my cock next. To make me look more like his Reek, he claimed, and caressed my head."

"Some time before that, I discovered that my cage was attached to a chain by a thick knot of rope. I didn't see it immediately in grief for losing the spearwives, in blindness from the desire for vengeance, or, more frequently, death. So that night when the boy came, I pointed and stared at the knot, and before dawn my new ally returned with the greatest gift, a frightened man from White Harbor, a sailor, a master of knots. He gestured from below and showed me how to untie it."

"The table of Lord Ramsay lacked in refinement for the flayed, and my bare arms were thin enough to reach the beginning of the knot through the bars of the cage. So when his lordship came to see me in the morning, I was ready to untie it and land on him, cage and all, in hope we'd both die. But he only stood far away, as if he knew what I was intending, wearing a shining armour. He told me he would continue our friendship when he killed all the traitors to him, and after them, his father."

"I wondered whom he could possibly call traitors, the mockery of the man who never had a people."

"I, I had a people," Mance whispered, wanting them to understand, if they could, if the gods didn't make them as they made Ramsay and his father. "I led them against the Wall in hope to protect them behind it. And I saved a life of a Reek, and a life of an innocent girl, leading six good fighters to their death. Those are my crimes."

"Did you learn the name of the girl you saved?" Lady Sansa asked.

"Jeyne..." Mance remembered. "Jeyne Poole. She lived."

Lady Sansa put a hand in front of her mouth to stifle a gasp, and her blue eyes filled with water.

Mance continued, wishing for his story to be over. "That evening, after Ramsay and two other hosts of men rode out in separate directions, the great horns sounded the battle, when the short day gave way to a much longer night. The army of the clansmen from the border of your kingdoms poured into the fortress when one of the treacherous northern lords opened the gates on the inside. They were led by a man called Stannis, a proud kneeler, that one. He calls himself king but few others choose to call him so."

"So when the army breached the fortress, never properly repaired since Ramsay had it burnt-"

"Theon Greyjoy burned Winterfell," interrupted Lady Sansa.

"No, my lady, Reek didn't do it, Ramsay did."

"How can you be certain? And who is Reek?" she inquired, repeating a common unspoken question on her lips, as if she alone dared to speak for the whole of Harrenhal, eager to hear the answer.

"Theon?" she said in disbelief and Mance only nodded.

"So I was still up there in the cage and I loosened the knot a little, letting the cage slide on the chain until it hit the window of one of the towers. I reached for the tower wall with my arms and mutilated legs. I found it was good he flayed me bit by bit for despite the unbearable pain, I still had some use of my legs. I gripped a window sill through the bars of my cage with all my remaining strength."

"Soon the knot got more loose from my movements, the cage hit the wall harder, and its door went ajar on one place."

"I squeezed myself out and I remained hanging on the tower, holding tight. It took me hours to descend the tower, stone by stone. The rough masonry of the First Men was my ladder and I landed safely in the snow. The terrible white cloak I was forced to wear hid me from a company of Ramsay's man that ran past at that very moment."

"I crawled away and I hid in the crypts with the old lords of Winterfell, until the battle was over. I crept into a hole like a coward and I cried. I, who led my people in battle to take the Wall, I who scaled the Wall numerous times and never fell, I ran away from the battle and I wept."

"Stannis won and I came forward to ask for a reward no one promised me, and was lucky that the old fat lord of White Harbor, and some others, upheld my cause and said how the scouting necessary to storm the castle was done by me. Stannis had seen me before but he did not recognise me after the Boltons took me in their care, which was more than good."

"I dared asking three things of Stannis, stubborn and limited, but fair in both reward and punishment, and he let me have them."

"He told me that if I found them, I could have the Boltons, father and son."

"And a horse to leave the cursed place a free man when I was done."

"So first I searched for a mute boy, and then for Ramsay and his father, among the other prisoners. And I searched among the riches gathered by Ramsay from people he killed until I found Frenya's knife. She'd use it to clean fish from the frozen lakes far beyond the Wall," Mance explained showing the knife he used to hurt Ser Daven.

"Roose and Ramsay hid among the smallfolk dressed up as pig herders, but the real herders shunned them. And there were barely any pigs left from the change of seasons and so many armies. I had such close contact with Ramsay when he worked on me that I knew every curve of his body, in every position. I knew him as I know the looks of of the ice on the Wall, when it shines brightly in the sunlight, when it weeps, and when it is safe to scale. So with the help of the mute boy and some clansmen, I captured the Boltons and tied them in the crypts of Winterfell, to the statues of Lord Rickard and his son Brandon, one to each, facing the Lady Lyanna."

"Roose remained calm and told me sweetly that Littlefinger, who had given them a false Arya Stark to lay their claim to the north, together with some Lord Tywin Lannister shitting gold, would give me more coin for their release than a poor wildling like me had ever seen in his life."

"Now I don't give shit about your southron lineages so it took me some time to understand that Littlefinger and Lord Baelish are one and the same. And this is why I don't deem him fit to judge me. I'd rather be a murderer and an impostor, than a sweet talking high lord who sends an innocent maiden to wed Ramsay Snow, knowing she'd be forced to lay with his dogs."

"That day in the crypts Ramsay looked confident that I would take his father on his offer. Roose told Ramsay they were lucky to deal with me, a broken man, where Stannis would surely burn them alive for the new god he started to adore."

"I told them I had a cloak to finish, and their faces changed."

"I told them I could gut a dead bear with my bare hands since I was a young lad behind the Wall. I told them I was the King-beyond-the-Wall, and them mere bannermen who betrayed their lord."

"It takes a lot of human skin to sew a good cloak, my lords," Mance observed in a sinister voice.

"I laid the cloak they were so kind to begin for me over the shoulders of the Lady Lyanna, asking her for forgiveness for soiling her resting place with what I was about to do. The Boltons usurped Winterfell, and I thought that somehow, had she been alive, she'd understand."

"Roose watched me with cold fish eyes and mentioned that he was not going to squeal like a dirty pig as I did in the cage. I took Frenya's knife, and told him that I didn't want his squeals. Only his skin in payment of what they had done."

"May your gods never let you see what I have seen, good people of Harrenhal!" Mance's voice rang empty over the burned and crumpled towers of Harren the Black. "For squeal they did and prayed to gods for mercy..."

"And I," Mance wept like a woman just widowed, with no shame in her weakness, only immense pain, "I hated myself for what I did, I hated myself with every piece of peeled skin, I hated myself for becoming a monster."

"I hated myself some more and I did it anyway."

"After several days, I scattered a bag of Bolton flesh and bones in the woods, a fodder for the beasts. I released Ramsay's dogs and they went to the woods, and ran with the wolves. On a cold morning a large pack passed howling under the walls of Winterfell. They killed a bear and left the carcass in the ditch. The cooks took the meat, and I took the fur to finish my cloak. I found a tanner who helped me with my work, not knowing what kind of leather we worked with. Finally I sewed the bear's fur upon the hem and the hood of my old cloak, black with red, on top."

"So this is the cloak of cloaks, it tells of who I am, of what I can do, of who I love, and of who I hate," Mance faced them all, his weakness banished for a time. "I'm a wildling, a bard, a crow, an oathbreaker, a deserter, a lover and a father, a king to some, and an enemy to others, a mutilated captive, a man, free."

"Why going south?" asked the Elder Brother from behind. Ser Daven's nose looked well tended, and he observed Mance with huge blue-green eyes, in awe or in disgust, no one could tell.

"Because Lord Jon Snow did the unthinkable and protected my people. He would have ridden in person to free me from the Boltons, if he had not been... prevented," Mance said, carefully choosing the words. His errand was still his own and much depended on such secrecy as could be found. "When we met, Jon told me he wanted to be one of us, of the free folk. He betrayed me and defeated me in fulfillment of his oaths. And then, not only he did not kill me, he helped my people where no one else would. Leaving me in his debt forever."

"So when I was done with vengeance, I donned my new cloak for the first time and I made a vow in the godswood."

"I swore that I would go south, and find help for my people, bring help to Lord Snow, against the Long Night."

"And after I did that, I swore that I would return to the godswood of Winterfell and lay my cloak to rest under the heart tree, in honour of the memory of the six spearwives who died so that others may live."

"A convincing story," said Ser Bonifer, unimpressed, "but nothing more. It's just another tale you invented to fool the people. You must be working for Stannis and you want people to believe he defeated the Boltons who were allies of Lord Tywin."

Mance walked the dais, his cloak terrible to behold, his flayed legs showing the goose bumps from cold.

"Some songs are too incredible to believe in," he said in earnest, "but that doesn't make them any less true."

"Ser Bonifer," the Elder Brother said, "I am afraid that we are now forced to take our leave from the hospitality of your lord, who seems to have already taken leave of our company."

All eyes looked for Baelish, but he was nowhere to be found.

"I will make a special recommendation to the High Septon about your faithful service," the Elder Brother continued in a melodious voice. "But now I have to depart or I am afraid that I will be entirely too late for the Queen Cersei's trial. Mance Rayder will accompany me-"

"But Elder Brother, surely, this criminal-" Ser Bonifer tried to say.

"It is the will of the Seven," the Elder Brother claimed with fervour. "Six companions he had lost, protecting the weak, and six he will have again on his way to the capital."

Mance found he could not speak any more. All his words were gone, and only astonishment remained, growing larger when Lady Sansa and Gendry joined him on the dais, followed by Blackwood, and a few of his bloody ravens, who never stopped haunting them since Raventree. One, a few, or a dozen, always on their heels. Black wings fluttered after Lord Tytos, and over the shaven head of the Elder Brother. Mance unwillingly imagined a raven shitting gold on the monk's head and smiled. Ser Daven made no move to leave even if no one held him hostage any longer.

"I don't know how to be a spearwife," Lady Sansa said. "But I will try."

Brother Gravedigger accompanied the bastard of Robert Baratheon and the trueborn daughter of Eddard Stark to the castle door leading to the dungeons. Mance observed how he wrapped his brown monk's cloak around Sansa's shoulders although she was dressed warm enough. Jon's sister gave him something looking like a saddlebag in return, but Mance could not see what it was because his attention jumped back to Ser Bonifer who commanded his garrison to attack. Only half of the men formed lines, and the rest made sullen faces, or the sign of the Seven, to protect them from evil.

The Lannister soldiers formed fully, waiting for Ser Daven's command, and the odds were not good.

Mance stood behind the pile of bows and arrows, threatening and kingly, holding Ser Daven's sword. The soldiers of the Faith advanced towards the dais, encircling it from three sides. The King-beyond-the-Wall glanced over his shoulder and saw no one. They are all gone, he realised, disappeared in the castle, after the talk of companionship.

When he faced the soldiers again, there was new horror on their faces. He looked for its cause and saw the Brother Gravedigger return to stand by his side, just like when they faced the wights together for the first time after leaving the Quiet Isle. The Lannister soldiers halted as if they had seen a certain death.

"The Hound!" one said in fear.

Mance looked at his Rhaegar, towering over him, wearing a helmet shaped as a snarling dog, a greatsword steady in his giant arms.

"It's not the Hound, you idiots", said Ser Bonifer. "The Hound's dead, there have been many ravens on that. This is only a tall monk wearing his helm and some armour they have stolen from us for the stupid mummery."

The monk unclasped the dog's helm and removed it, shaking his long black lank hair all the way back, revealing the facial burns Mance had seen only once, and which made all the soldiers step back in terror.

"It burdens me to disappoint you, Ser Bonifer," rasped Sandor Clegane, "but I yet live. I should be happy to draw my sigil in your skin if you require more proof of who I am."

And then he addressed the Lannister soldiers: "You all know me. I commanded you in the past. You wish to die, come forward. You wish to live, believe that Jaime knew who I was and let me be. Littlefinger tricked Jaime to leave so that he could plot whatever he wanted. He meant for Daven to be killed by chance so that he can command you all. Will you follow Baelish or your own lord?"

"Your reputation is almost as fearsome as mine among the kneelers, brother," Mance quipped, and the Hound presented himself to the King-beyond-the-Wall: "The name is Sandor Clegane, a well known monster of the south. I have a face of a Stranger to match my reputation, and no lute like you to make my voice sound any sweeter."

"The are only two of them, rabid dogs or not!" yelled Ser Bonifer. "Bring them down!"

The soldiers hesitated when Ser Daven's weak voice fluttered in the air from inside the castle. "Ser Jaime said we could kill the singer if he were a threat to us, but he ordered us not to harm the Lady Sansa, the Elder Brother or the Brother Gravedigger. I command you to stop Ser Bonifer and his men."

The clash of swords followed suit and the soldiers seemed happy to have a reason to attack each other, rather than to deal with the wildling dressed in human skin, or the Hound.

"Time to go," the Hound said pulling Mance away. "Before they change their minds again."

Jointly, they stepped backward to the small door, where the others had disappeared. Before anyone thought to follow them they were out of the dungeons and in the fields of Harrenhal, finding their horses ready and saddled behind the first low hill. That was where the Elder Brother and Sansa led the animals when his execution was about to start, Mance was told. They had also released all the other horses from the castle so it was going to take plenty of time before any pursuit would be formed. The Elder Brother chattered how the beasts obeyed the lady, especially the huge black horse of the Brother G... no, of the Hound, Mance repeated the new knowledge in his head.

They had closed the passage out of the dungeons after them with a boulder so big that all seven of them had to push it in place, even the lady with her delicate arms. That feat sealed it. They were a mummer's troupe. They became a company, in truth, not only in numbers, sacred or not, but in deed.

Mance rode at the rear, with Ser Daven in the saddle behind him that night. Lannister was too weak to steer a horse. The Elder Brother, Blackwood, Gendry, Ser Daven's mount and the ravens were in front of them. Lady Sansa rode ahead with the Hound, her own horse unused, tied to his big black beast like an unnecessary appendage. She still wore his cloak and their shapes melted together in the dark, two black figures on a black horse, diminishing fast in the distance.

The King-beyond-the-Wall breathed freedom and pushed his horse forward.

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