The rat squealed as he bit into it, squirming wildly in his hands. The belly was the softest part. He tore at the sweet meat, the warm blood running over his lips. It was so good that it brought tears to his eyes. His belly rumbled and he swallowed. By the third bite the rat had ceased to struggle, and he was feeling almost content.
Then he heard the sounds of voices outside the dungeon door.
At once he stilled, fearing even to chew. His mouth was full of blood and flesh and hair, but he dared not spit or swallow. He listened in terror to the scuff of boots and the clanking of iron keys. No, he thought, please gods, not now. It had taken him so long to catch the rat. If they catch me with it they will take it away, and then Lord Ramsay will hurt me.
He knew he ought to hide the rat, but he was so hungry. It had been two days since he had eaten, or maybe three. Down here in the dark it was hard to tell. Though his arms and legs were thin as reeds, his belly was swollen and hollow, and ached so much that he found himself remembering Lady Hornwood. After their wedding, Lord Ramsay had locked her away in a tower and starved her to death. In the end she had eaten her own fingers.
He crouched down in a corner of his cell, clutching his prize. Blood ran from the corners of his mouth as he tore at the rat with his teeth, trying to bolt down as much of the warm flesh as he could. The meat was stringy, but so rich he thought he might be sick. He chewed and swallowed, feeling the small bones crunch between his teeth.
The sounds were growing louder. Please gods, he isn't coming for me. There were other cells, other prisoners. Sometimes he heard them screaming, even through the thick stone walls. The women always scream the loudest. He sucked at the raw meat and tried to spit out the leg bone, but it only dribbled over his lower lip and tangled in his beard. Go away, he prayed, go away, pass me by, please, please.
But the footsteps stopped just when they were loudest, and the keys clattered right outside the door. The rat fell from his fingers. His heels scrabbled at the straw as he tried to push himself into the corner.
The sound of the lock turning was the most terrible of all. When the light hit him full in the face, he let out a shriek.
"That's not him," said a boy's voice. "Look at him. We've got the wrong cell."
"Last cell on the left," another boy replied. "This is the last cell on the left, isn't it?"
"Aye." A pause. "What's he saying?"
"I don't think he likes the light."
"Would you, if you looked like that?" The boy hawked and spat. "And the stench of him. I'm like to choke."
"He's been eating rats," said the second boy. "Look."
The first boy laughed. "He has. That's funny."
I had to, he thought. The rats bit him when he slept, gnawing at his fingers and his toes, even at his face, so when he got his hands on one he did not hesitate. Eat or be eaten, those were the only choices. "I did it," he mumbled, "I did, I did, I ate him, they do the same to me, please..."
The boys moved closer, the straw crunching softly under their feet. "Talk to me," said one of them. He was the smaller of the two, a thin boy, but clever. "Tell me your name."
My name. A scream caught in his throat. They had taught him his name, they had, but it had been so long that he'd forgotten. If I say it was wrong he'll take another finger, or worse, he'll... "Please," he squeaked, his voice thin and weak. He sounded a hundred years old. Perhaps he was. How long have I been in here?
"Reek," said the larger of the boys. "Your name is Reek. Remember?" He was the one with the torch. The smaller boy had the ring of iron keys.
Reek? Tears ran down his cheeks. "I remember. I do." His mouth opened and closed. "My name is Reek. It rhymes with bleak." In the dark he did not need a name, so it was easy to forget. Reek, Reek, my name is Reek. He had not been born with that name. In another life he had been someone else, but here and now, his name was Reek. He remembered.
He remembered the boys as well. They were clad in matching lambswool doublets, silver-grey with dark blue trim. Both were squires, both were eight, and both were Walder Frey. Big Walder and Little Walder, yes. Only the big one was Little, and the little one was Big, which amused the boys and confused the rest of the world. "I know you," he whispered, through cracked lips. "I know your names."
"You're to come with us," said Little Walder.
"His lordship has need of you," said Big Walder.
Fear went through him like a knife. They are only children, he thought. Two boys of eight. He could overcome two boys of eight, surely. Even as weak as he was, he could take the torch, take the keys, take the dagger sheathed on Little Walder's hip, escape. No, it is too easy. It is a trap. If I run, he will take another finger from me, he will take more of my teeth.
Serve and obey and remember who you are, and no more harm will come to you. He promised, his lordship promised. Even if he had wanted to resist, he did not have the strength. It had been scourged from him, starved from him, flayed from him. When Big Walder pulled him up and Little Walder waved the torch at him to herd him from the cell, he went along as docile as a dog. If he had a tail, he would have tucked it down between his legs.
Out in the yard, night was settling over the Dreadfort and a full moon was rising over the castle's eastern walls. Its pale light cast the shadows of the tall triangular merlons across the frozen ground, a line of sharp black teeth. The air was cold and damp and full of half-forgotten smells. The world, Reek told himself, this is what the world smells like. He did not know how long he had been down there in the dungeons, but it had to have been half a year at least. What if it had been five years, or ten, or twenty? Would I even know? What if I went mad down there, and half my life is gone? But no, that was folly. The boys were still boys. If it had been ten years, they would have grown into men. He had to remember that. I must not let him drive me mad. He can take my fingers and my toes, he can put out my eyes and slice my ears off, but he cannot take my wits unless I let him.