pewviews and chapter summaries from public readings Prologue (summary) The chapter begins with Varamyr inside the skin of one of his wolves (like the Bran inside summer POVs we've seen, in fact, at first I thought it was a Bran chapter). The three wolves (One-Eye, the oldest, and I can't recall the names of the other two) are hunting and come across three people, two men and a woman cradling her "pup" (baby). The wolf thinks that the men are the greatest danger, and they set upon them. They kill the men, and then the woman. The wolf Varamyr is inside begins eating the child, the "sweetest meat" of them all or something.
Varamyr awakes from this in a shelter in an abandoned village about half a league north of this. He is injured. A boy stabbed him with a bone knife as he had tried to take a cloak from the boy's dead mother. Varamyr had been patched up by Thistle, a spear-wife, whom had not recognized him. They had started in a large group of refugees running from the Battle at the Wall. Some of those had run off with the Weeper, who was planning on taking the Wall, some had run off with a supposed seer woman who had a vision of boats arriving to take those beyond the wall to a new home, various others had gone in different directions.
When Orell the eagle had burned, Varamyr had at first passed out. When this happened, his snow bear (who always hated him) broke free and killed a bunch of people before being slain. I can't recall what happened to the shadowcat... only his wolves had stayed true to him.
Varamyr reflects on his training with Haggin (sp?), another skinchanger who he had been taken to as a boy.
There is a flashback to when he was 6; he was a scrawny, sickly child whose older sister had taken to calling "Lump" (a name he later used when Thistle asked him who he was). He had a younger brother, Bump, who was strong and healthy and whom his mother had directed all her attention to, leaving Lump to fend for himself. They had three dogs, and one day the dogs were found in a room, with Bump dead. Their father could not know which dog was responsible, and so killed them one by one. When the last, most loyal of them came to the father's call, Varamyr slipped into him, and tried to beg his father not to kill him. Of course, being a dog, this came out as a whine, and when the father beheaded the dog, Varamyr screamed from elsewhere. At that point they knew what he was. Some time later, his father came with an axe and took him out into the woods, and Varamyr thought that it was his turn to die, but instead he gave him to Haggin.
Reek 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?
,” 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.
Little Walder led the way with torch in hand. Reek followed meekly, with Big Walder just behind him. The dogs in the kennels barked as they went by. Wind swirled through the yard, cutting through the thin cloth of the filthy rags he wore and raising gooseprickles on his skin. The night air was cold and damp, but he saw no sign of snow, though surely winter was close at hand. Reek wondered if he would be alive to see the snows come. How many fingers will I have? How many toes? When he raised a hand, he was shocked to see how white it was, how fleshless. I have an old man’s hands. Could he have been wrong about the boys? What if they were not Little Walder and Big Walder after all, but the sons of the boys he’d known?
The great hall was dim and smoky. Rows of torches burned to the left and right, grasped by skeletal human hands jutting from the walls. High overhead were wooden rafters black from smoke, and a vaulted ceiling lost in shadow. The air was heavy with the smells of wine and ale and roasted meat. Reek’s stomach rumbled noisily at the scents, and his mouth began to water.
Little Walder pushed him stumbling past the long tables where the men of the garrison were eating. He could feel their eyes upon him. The best places, up near the dais, were occupied by Ramsay’s favorites. But there were strangers too, faces he did not know. Some wrinkled their noses as he passed, whilst others laughed at the sight of him.
At the high table the Bastard of Bolton sat in his lord father’s seat, drinking from his father’s cup. Two old men shared the high table with him, and Reek knew at a glance that both were lords. One was gaunt, with flinty eyes, a long white beard, and a face as hard as a winter frost. His jerkin was a ragged bearskin, worn and greasy. Underneath he wore a ringmail byrnie, even here at table. The second lord was thin as well, but twisted where the first was straight. One of his shoulders was much higher than the other, and he stooped over his trencher like a vulture over carrion. His eyes were grey and greedy, his teeth yellow, his forked beard a tangle of snow and silver. Only a few wisps of white hair still clung to his spotted skull, but the cloak he wore was soft and fine, grey wool trimmed with clack sable and fastened at the shoulder with a starburst wrought in beaten silver.
Ramsay was clad in black and pink; black boots, black belt and scabbard, black leather jerkin over a pink velvet doublet slashed with dark red satin. In his right ear gleamed a garnet cut in the shape of a drop of blood. Yet for all the splendor of his garb, he remained an ugly man, big-boned and slope-shouldered, with a fleshiness to him that suggested that in later life he would run to fat. His skin was pink and blotchy, his nose broad, his mouth small, his hair long and dark and dry. His lips were wide and meaty, but the thing men noticed first about him were his eyes. He had his lord father’s eyes; small, close-set, queerly pale. Ghost grey, some men called the shade, but in truth his eyes were all but colorless, like two chips of dirty ice.
At the sight of Reek, he smiled. “There he is. My sour old friend.” To the men beside him he said, “Reek has been with me since I was a boy. My lord father gave him to me, as a token of his love.”
The two lords exchanged a look. “I had heard your serving man was dead,” said the one with the stooped shoulder. “Slain by the Starks, they said.”
Lord Ramsay chuckled. “The ironmen will tell you that what is dead may never die, but rises again, harder and stronger. Like Reek. He smells of the grave, though, I grant you that.”
“He smells of nightsoil and stale vomit.” The stoop-shouldered old lord tossed aside the bone that he’d been gnawing on and wiped his fingers on the tablecloth. “Is there some reason you must needs inflict him upon us whilst we’re eating?”
The straight-backed old man in the mail byrnie studied Reek with flinty eyes. “Look again,” he urged the other lord. “His hair’s gone white and he is three stone thinner, but this is no serving man. Have you forgotten?”
The crookback lord looked again and gave a sudden snort. “Him? Can it be? Stark’s ward. Smiling, always smiling.”
“He smiles less often now,” Lord Ramsay confessed. “I may have broken some of his pretty white teeth.”
“You would have done better to slit his throat,” said the lord in mail. “A dog who turns against his master is fit for naught but skinning.”
“Oh, he’s been skinned, here and there,” said Ramsay.
“Yes, my lord. I was bad, my lord. Insolent and...” He licked his lip, trying to think of what else he had done. Serve and obey, he told himself, and he’ll let you live, and keep the parts that you still have. Serve and obey and remember your name. Reek, Reek, it rhymes with meek.
“There’s blood on your mouth,” Ramsay observed. “Have you been chewing on your fingers again, Reek?”
“No. No, my lord, I swear.” Reek had tried to bite his own ring finger off once, to stop it hurting after they had stripped the skin from it. Lord Ramsay would never simply cut off a man’s finger. He preferred to flay it, and let the exposed flesh dry and crack and fester. Reek had been whipped and racked and cut, but there was no pain half so excruciating as the pain that followed flaying. It was the sort of pain that drove men mad, and it could not be endured for long. Sooner or later the victim would scream, “Please, no more, stop it hurting, cut it off,” and Lord Ramsay would oblige. It was a game they played. Reek had learned the rules well, but the one time he had forgotten and tried to end the pain himself with his teeth, Ramsay had not been pleased, and the offense had cost Reek another toe. “I ate a rat,” he mumbled.
“A rat?” Ramsay’s pale eyes glittered in the torchlight. “All the rats in the Dreadfort belong to my lord father. How dare you make a meal of one without my leave?”
Reek did not know what to say, so he said nothing. One wrong word could cost him another toe, even a finger. Thus far he had lost two fingers off his left hand and the pinky off his right, but only the little toe off his right foot against three from his left. Sometimes Ramsay would make japes about balancing him out. He does not want to hurt me, he told me so, he only does it when I give him cause. His lord was merciful and kind. He might have flayed his face off for some of the things Reek had said, before he learned his true name and proper place.
Lord Ramsay filled his cup with ale. “Reek, I have glad tidings for you. I am to be wed. My lord father is bringing me a Stark girl. Lord Eddard’s daughter, Arya. You remember little Arya, don’t you?”
Arya Underfoot, he almost said. Arya Horseface. Robb’s younger sister, brown-haired, long-faced, skinny as a stick, always dirty. Sansa was the pretty one. He remembered a time when he had thought that Lord Eddard Stark might marry him to Sansa and claim him for a son, but that had only been a child’s fancy. Arya, though... “I remember her. Arya.”
“She shall be the Lady of Winterfell, and me her lord.”
She is only a girl. “Yes, my lord. Congratulations.”
“Will you attend me at my wedding, Reek?”
He hesitated. “If you wish it, my lord.”
“Oh, I do.”
He hesitated again, wondering if this was some cruel trap. “Yes, my lord. If it please you. I would be honored.”
“We must take you out of that vile dungeon, then. Scrub you pink again, get you some clean clothes, some food to eat. I have a little task for you, and you’ll need your strength back if you are to serve me. You do want to serve me, I know.”
“Yes, my lord. More than anything.” A shiver went through him. “I’m your Reek. Please let me serve you. Please.”
“Since you ask so nicely, how can I deny you?” Ramsay Bolton smiled. “I ride to war, Reek. And you will be coming with me, to help me fetch home my virgin bride.
A white wolf moved through a black wood, beneath a pale cliff as tall as the sky. The moon ran with him, slipping through a tangle of bare branches overhead, across the starry sky.
"Snow," the moon murmurred.
The wolf made no answer. Snow crunched beneath his paws. The wind sighed through the trees. And far off, he could hear his packmates calling to him, like to like.
They were hunting too. A wild rain was lashing down upon his black brother as he tore at the flesh of an enormous goat, washing the blood from his side where the goat's long horn had raked him. In another place, his little sister lifted her head to sing to the moon, and a hundred small grey cousins broke off their hunt to sing with her. The hills were warmer where they were, and full of game. Many a night his sister's pack gorged on the flesh of sheep and cows and horses, the prey of men, and sometimes even on the flesh of man himself.
"Snow," the moon called down again, cackling.
The white wolf padded along the man trail beneath the icy cliff. The taste of blood and bone and sinew was on his tongue, and his ears rang to the song of the hundred cousins, but he had lost his other brother, grey-furred and smelling of the sun. Once they had been six, five whimpering blindly in the snow beside their dead mother, and him alone, the pale one, crawling off into the trees on shaky legs as his litter mates sucked cool milk from hard dead nipples. Now only four remained of the six born that day, and one of those was lost and gone.
"Snow," the moon insisted.
The white wolf ran from it, a white arrow flying past the ice, racing toward the cave of night where the sun had hidden, his breath frosting in the air. On starless nights the great cliff was as black as stone, a darkness towering high above the wide world, but when the moon came out it shimmered pale and icy as a frozen stream. The wolf's pelt was thick and shaggy, but when the wind blew along the ice no fur could keep the chill out. On the other side the wind was colder still, the wolf sensed. That was where his brother was, the grey brother who smelled of summer.
"Snow." An icicle tumbled from a branch. The white wolf turned toward the sound and bared his teeth.
"Snow!" The wolf's fur rose bristling, as the woods dissolved around him. "Snow, snow, snow!" The cries were accompanied by the beat of wings. Through the gloom a raven flew.
It landed on Jon Snow's chest with a thump and a scrabbling of claws. "SNOW!" it screamed into his face, flapping its wings.
"I hear you." The room was dim, his pallet hard. Grey light leaked through the shutters, promising another bleak cold day. In his wolf dreams it was always night. "Is this how you woke Mormont? Get your feathers out of my face." Jon wriggled an arm out from under his blankets to shoo the raven off. It was a big bird, old and bold and scruffy, utterly without fear.
"Snow," it cried, flapping to his bedpost. "Snow, snow."
Jon filled his fist with a pillow and let fly, but the bird took to the air. The pillow struck the wall and burst, scattering stuffing everywhere just as Dolorous Edd Tollett poked his head through the door.
"Beg pardon," the steward said, ignoring the flurry of feathers, "shall I fetch m'lord some breakfast?"
"Corn," cried the raven. "Corn, corn."
"Roast raven," Jon suggested. "And half a pint of ale."
"Three corns and one roast raven," said Edd. "Very good, m'lord, only Hobb's made boiled eggs, black sausage, and apples stewed with prunes this morning. The apples stewed with prunes are excellent, except for the prunes. I never eat prunes myself. Well, there was one time when Hobb chopped them up with chestnuts and carrots and hid them in a hen. Never trust a cook, my lord. They'll prune you when you least expect it."
"Later." Breakfast could wait; Stannis could not. "Any trouble from the stockades last night?"
"Not since you put guards on the guards, my lord."
"Good." A thousand wildlings had been penned up beyond the Wall, the captives Stannis Baratheon had taken when his knights had smashed Mance Rayder's patchwork host. Many of the prisoners were women, and some of the guards had been sneaking them out to warm their beds. King's men, queen's men, it did not seem to matter; a few black brothers had tried the same thing. Men were men, and these were the only women for a thousand leagues.
"Two more wildlings turned up to surrender," Edd went on. "A mother with a girl clinging to her skirts. She had a boy babe too, all swaddled up in fur, but he was dead."
"Dead," said the Old Bear's raven. It was one of the bird's favorite words. "Dead, dead, dead."
They had free folk drifting in most every night, starved and half frozen creatures who had run from the battle beneath the Wall only to realize that they had no place to run to.
"Was the mother questioned?" Jon asked. Stannis Baratheon had smashed Mance Rayder's host to pieces and made the King-Beyond-the-Wall his captive... but the wildlings were still out there, the Weeper and Tormund Giantsbane and thousands more.
"Aye, m'lord," said Edd, "but all she knows is that she ran off during the battle and hid in the woods after. We filled her full of porridge and sent her to the pens, and burned the babe."
Burning dead children had ceased to trouble Jon Snow; live ones were another matter. Two kings to wake the dragon, he remembered. The father first and then the son, so both die kings. The words had been murmurred by one of the queen's men as Maester Aemon had cleaned his wounds after the battle. Jon had been shocked when they were repeated to him. "It was his fever talking," he had said, but Maester Aemon had demurred. "There is power in a king's blood, Jon," he warned, "and better men than Stannis have done worse things than this." The king can be harsh and unforgiving, aye, but a babe still on the breast? Only a monster would give a living child to the flames.
He pissed in darkness, filling his chamberpot as the Old Bear's raven muttered complaints. The wolf dreams had been growing stronger, and Jon found himself remembering them even when awake. Ghost knows that Grey Wind is dead. Robb had died at the Twins, betrayed by men he'd believed his friends, and Grey Wolf had perished with him. Bran and Rickon had been murdered too, beheaded by that turncloak Theon Greyjoy... but if the dreams did not lie, their direwolves had escaped. At Queenscrown, one had come out of the darkness to save Jon's life. Summer, it had to be. His fur was grey, and Shaggydog is black. He wondered if some part of his dead brothers lived on inside their wolves.
Jon filled his basin from the flagon of water beside his bed, washed his face and hands, donned a clean set of black woolens, laced up a black leather jerkin, and pulled on a pair of well-worn boots. Mormont's raven watched with shrewd black eyes, then fluttered to the window. "Do you take me for your thrall?" Jon asked the bird. When he folded back the window with its thick diamond-shaped panes of yellow glass, the chill of the morning hit him in the face. He took a breath to clear away the cobwebs of the night as the raven flapped away. That bird is too clever by half. It had been the Old Bear's companion for long years, but that had not stopped it from eating Mormont's face once he died.
Jon SnowOutside his bedchamber a flight of steps descended to a larger room furnished with a scarred pinewood table and a dozen oak-and-leather chairs. With Stannis in the King's Tower and the Lord Commander's Tower burned to a shell, Jon had established himself in Donal Noye's modest rooms behind the armory.
The grant that the king had presented him for signature was on the table beneath a silver drinking cup that had once been Donal Noye's. The one-armed smith had left few personal effects: the cup, six pennies and a copper star, a niello brooch with a broken clasp, a musty brocade doublet that bore the stag of Storm's End. His treasures were his tools, and the swords and knives he made. His life was at the forge. Jon moved the cup aside and read the parchment once again. If I put my seal to this, I will forever be remembered as the lord commander who gave away the Wall, he thought, but if I should refuse...
Stannis Baratheon was proving to be a prickly guest, and a restless one. He had ridden down the kingsroad almost as far as Queenscrown, prowled through the empty hovels of Mole's Town, inspected the ruined forts at Queensgate and Oakenshield. Each night he walked atop the Wall with Lady Melisandre, and during the days he visited the stockades, picking captives out for the red woman to question. He does not like to be balked. This would not be a pleasant morning, Jon feared.
From the armory came a clatter of shields and swords, as the latest lot of boys and raw recruits armed themselves. He could hear the voice of Iron Emmett telling them to be quick about it. Cotter Pyke had not been pleased to lose him, but the young ranger had a gift for training men. He loves to fight, and he'll teach his boys to love it too. Or so he hoped.
Jon's cloak hung on a peg by the door, his swordbelt on another. He donned them both and made his way to the armory. The rug where Ghost slept was empty, he saw. Two guardsmen stood inside the doors, clad in black cloaks and iron halfhelms, spears in their hands. "Will m'lord be wanting a tail?" asked Garse.
"I think I can find the King's Tower by myself." Jon hated having guards trailing after him everywhere he went. It made him feel like a mother duck leading a procession of ducklings.
Iron Emmett's lads were well at it in the yard when Jon emerged, blunted swords slamming into shields and ringing against one another. Jon stopped to watch a moment as Horse pressed Hop-Robin back toward the well. Horse had the makings of a good fighter, he decided. He was strong and getting stronger, and his instincts were sound. Hop-Robin was another tale. His club foot was bad enough, but he was afraid of getting hit as well. Perhaps we can make a steward of him. The fight ended abruptly, with Hop-Robin on the ground.
"Well fought," Jon said to Horse, "but you drop your shield too low when pressing an attack. You will want to correct that, or it is like to get you killed."
A few of Stannis's knights were sparring as well, on the far side of the yard. King's men in one corner and queen's men in another, he did not fail to note, but only a few. It's too cold for most of them. As Jon strode past them, a booming voice called after him. "BOY! YOU THERE! BOY!"
'Boy' was not the worst of the things that Jon Snow had been called since being chosen lord commander. He ignored it.
"Snow," the voice insisted, "Lord Commander."
This time he stopped and turned. "Ser?"
The knight overtopped him by six inches. "A man who bears Valyrian steel should use it for more than scratching his arse."
Jon had seen this one about the castle; a knight of great renown, to hear him tell it. During the battle beneath the Wall, Ser Godry Farring had slain a fleeing giant, pounding after him on horseback and driving his lance through his back, then dismounting to hack off the creature's pitiful small head. The queen's men had taken to calling him Godry the Giantslayer. Whenever he heard that, Jon remembered Ygritte, crying. I am the last of the giants. "I use Longclaw when I must, ser."
"How well, though?" Ser Godry drew his own blade. "Show me. I promise not to hurt you, lad."
How kind of you, thought Jon. "Some other time, perhaps. I fear that I have other duties just now."
"You fear. I see that." Ser Godry looked at his friends, grinning. "He fears," he said again, for the slow ones.
"You will excuse me." Jon showed them his back.
Castle Black seemed a bleak and forlorn place in the pale dawn light. My command, Jon Snow reflected ruefully, as much a ruin as it is a stronghold. The Lord Commander's Tower was a shell, the Common Hall a pile of blackened timbers, and Hardin's Tower looked as if the next gust of wind would knock it over... though it had looked that way for years. Behind them all the Wall rose huge and pale. Even at this hour it was acrawl with men, builders pushing up a new switchback stair to join the remnants of the old. Othell Yarwyck had put all of command on the task, and they worked from dawn to dusk. Without the stair, there was no way to reach the top of the Wall save by winch. That would not serve if the wildlings should attack again.
Above the King's Tower the great golden battle standard of House Baratheon cracked like a whip on the roof where Jon Snow had prowled with bow in hand not long ago, slaying Thenns and free folk beside Satin and Deaf Dick Follard. Two queen's men stood shivering on the steps, their hands tucked up into their armpits and their spears leaning against the door.
"Those cloth gloves will never serve," Jon told them. "See Bowen Marsh on the morrow, and he'll give you each a pair of leather gloves lined with fur."
"We will, m'lord, and thank you," said the older guard.
"That's if our bloody hands aren't froze off," the younger added, his breath a pale mist. "I used to think that it got cold up in the Dornish Marches. What did I know?"
Nothing, thought Jon Snow, the same as me.
Halfway up the winding steps, he came upon Samwell Tarly, headed down. "Are you coming from the king?" Jon asked him.
Sam nodded. "Maester Aemon sent me with a letter."
"I see." Some lords trusted their maesters to read their letters and convey the contents, but Stannis insisted on breaking the seals himself. "How did Stannis take it?"
"Not happily, by his face." Sam dropped his voice to a whisper. "I am not supposed to speak of it."
"Then don't." Jon wondered which of his father's bannermen had refused Stannis homage this time. He was quick enough to spread the word when Karhold declared for him. "How are you and your longbow getting on?" he asked Sam.
"I found a good book about archery," the fat youth said, "but doing it is harder. I get blisters."
"Keep at it. We may need your bow on the Wall if the Others turn up some dark night."
"Oh, I hope not," Sam said, shuddering.
Jon found more guards outside the king's solar. "No arms are allowed in His Grace's presence, my lord," their serjeant said. "I'll need that sword. Your knives as well." It would do no good to protest, Jon knew. He handed them his weaponry.
Within the solar the air was warm. Lady Melisandre was seated near the fire, her ruby glimmering against the pale skin of her throat. Ygritte had been kissed by fire; the red priestess was fire, and her hair was blood and flame. Stannis stood behind the rough-hewn table where the Old Bear had once been wont to sit and take his meals. Covering the table was a large map of the north, painted on a ragged piece of hide. A tallow candle weighed down one end of it, a steel gauntlet the other.
The king wore lambswool breeches and a quilted doublet, yet somehow he looked as stiff and uncomfortable as if he had been clad in plate and mail. His skin was pale leather, his beard cropped so short that it might have been painted on. A fringe about his temples was all that remained of his black hair. In his hand was a parchment with a broken seal of dark green wax.
Jon took a knee. The king frowned at him, and rattled the parchment angrily. "Rise. Tell me, who is Lyanna Mormont?"
"One of Lady Maege's daughters. Sire. The youngest. She was named for my lord father's sister."
"To curry your lord father's favor, I don't doubt. How old is this wretched girl child?"
Jon had to think a moment. "Ten. Or near enough to make no matter. Might I know how she has offended Your Grace?"
Stannis read from the letter. "Bear Island knows no king but the King in the North, whose name is STARK. A girl of ten, you say, and she presumes to scold her lawful king." His close-cropped beard lay like a shadow over his hollow cheeks. "See that you keep these tiding to yourself, Lord Snow. Karhold is with me, that is all the men need know. I will not have your brothers trading tales of how this child spit on me."
"As you command, Sire." Maege Mormont had ridden south with Robb, Jon knew. Her eldest daughter had joined the Young Wolf's host as well. Even if both of them had died, however, Lady Maege had other daughters, younger than Dacey but older than Lyanna. He did not understand why the youngest Mormont should be writing Stannis, and part of him could not help but wonder if the girl's answer might have been different if the letter had been sealed with a direwolf instead of a crowned stag, and signed by Jon Stark, Lord of Winterfell. It is too late for such misgivings, he reminded himself. You made your choice.
"Two score ravens were sent out," the king complained bitterly, "yet we get no response but silence and defiance. Homage is the duty every leal subject owes his king. Yet your lord father's bannermen turn their back on me, save the Karstarks. Is Arnolf Karstark the only man of honor in the north?"
Arnolf Karstark was the late Lord Rickard's uncle. He had been made the castellan of Karhold when his nephew and his sons went south with Robb, and he had been the first to send a raven in reply to Stannis's demand for homage, declaring his allegiance. The Karstarks have no other choice, Jon might have pointed out. Lord Rickard Karstark had betrayed the direwolf and spilled the blood of lions. The stag was Karhold's only hope, as Stannis knew as well as Jon. "In times as confused as these even men of honor must wonder where their duty lies," he told the king. "Your Grace is not the only king in the realm demanding homage."
"Tell me, Lord Snow," said Lady Melisandre, "where were these other kings when the wild people stormed your Wall?"
"A thousand leagues away, and deaf to our need. I have not forgotten that. Nor will I. But my father's bannermen have wives and children to protect, and smallfolk who will die should they chose wrongly. You ask much of them, Sire. Give them time, and you will have your answers."
"Answers such as this?" Stannis crushed Lyanna's letter in his fist.
"Even in the north men fear the wroth of Tywin Lannister," said Jon. "The Boltons make bad enemies as well. It is not happenstance that put a flayed man on their banners. The north rode with Robb, bled with him, died for him. They have supped on grief and death, and now you come to offer them another serving. Do you blame them if they hang back? Forgive me, Your Grace, but some will look at you and see only another doomed pretender."
"If His Grace is doomed, your realm is doomed as well," said Lady Melisandre. "Remember that, Lord Snow. It is the one true king of Westeros who stands before you."
Jon kept his face a mask. "As you say, my lady."
Stannis snorted. "You spend your words as if every one were a golden dragon. I wonder, how much gold do you have laid by?"
"Gold?" Are those the dragons the red woman means to wake? Dragons made of gold? "Such taxes as we collect are paid in kind, Your Grace. The Watch is rich in turnips, but poor in coin."
"Turnips are not like to appease Salladhor Saan. I require gold or silver."
"For that, you need White Harbor. The city cannot compare to Oldtown or King's Landing, but it is still a thriving port. Lord Manderly is the richest of my lord father's bannermen."
"Lord Too-Fat-To-Sit-a-Horse." The letter that Lord Wyman Manderly had sent back from White Harbor had spoken of his age and infirmity, and little more. Stannis had commanded Jon not to speak of that one either.
"Perhaps his lordship would fancy a wildling wife," suggested Lady Melisandre. "Is this fat man married, Lord Snow?"
"His lady wife is long dead. Lord Wyman has two grown sons, and grandchildren by the elder. And he is too fat to sit a horse, thirty stone at least. Val would never have him."
"Just once you might try to give me an answer that would please me, Lord Snow," the king grumbled.
"I would hope the truth would please you, Sire. Your men call Val a princess, but to the free folk she is only the sister of their king's dead wife. If you force her to marry a man she does not want she is like to slit his throat for him on their wedding night, but even if she accepts her husband, that does not mean the wildlings will follow him, or you. The only man who can bind them to your cause is Mance Rayder."
"I know that," Stannis said, unhappily. "I have spent hours speaking with the man. He knows much and more of our true enemy, and there is strength in him, I'll grant you. Even if he were to renounce his kingship, though, the man remains an oathbreaker. If I suffer one deserter to live, it will encourage others to desert. No. Laws should be made of iron, not of pudding. Mance Rayder's life is forfeit by every law of the Seven Kingdoms."
"The law ends at the Wall, Your Grace. You could make good use of Mance."
"I will. I'll burn him, and show the north how I deal with turncloaks and traitors. I have other men to lead the wildlings. And I have Rayder's son, do not forget. Once the father dies, his whelp will be the King-Beyond-the-Wall."
"Your Grace is mistaken." You know nothing, Jon Snow, Ygritte used to say, but he had learned. "The babe is no more a prince than Val is a princess. You don't become King-Beyond-the-Wall because your father was."
"Good," said Stannis, "for I will suffer no other kings in Westeros. Enough of Rayder. Have you signed the grant?"
And now it comes. Jon closed his burned fingers and opened them again. "No, Your Grace. You ask too much."
"Ask? I asked you to be Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North. I require these castles."
"We have ceded you the Nightfort," said Jon Snow.
"Rats and ruins. It is a niggard's gift that costs the giver nothing. Your own man Yarwyck says it will be half a year before the castle can be made fit for habitation."
"The other forts are no better."
"I know that. It makes no matter. They are all we have. There are nineteen forts along the Wall, and you have men in only three of them. I mean to have every one of them garrisoned again before the year is out."
"I have no quarrel with that, Sire, but it is being said that you also mean to grant these castles to your knights and lords, to hold as their own seats as vassals to Your Grace."
"Kings are expected to be open-handed to their followers. Did Lord Eddard teach his bastard nothing? Many of my knights and lords abandoned rich lands and stout castles in the south. Should their loyalty go unrewarded?"
"If Your Grace wishes to lose all of my lord father's bannermen, there is no more certain way than by giving northern halls to southron lords."
"How can I lose men I do not have? I had hoped to bestow Winterfell on a northman, you may recall. A son of Eddard Stark. He threw my offer in my face." Stannis Baratheon with a grievance was like a mastiff with a bone; he gnawed it down to splinters.
"By right Winterfell should go to my sister Sansa."
"Lady Lannister, you mean? Are you so eager to see the Imp perched on your father's seat?"
"No," said Jon.
"Good. It will not happen whilst I live, Lord Snow."
Jon knew better than to press the point. "Sire, some claim that you mean to grant lands and castles to Rattleshirt and the Magnar of Thenn."
The king's eyes turned to hard blue stones. He ground his teeth and said, "Who told you that?"
"Does that matter?" The talk was all over Castle Black. "If you must know, I had the tale from Gilly."
"Who is Gilly?" the king demanded.
"The wet nurse," said Lady Melisandre. "Your Grace gave her freedom of the castle."
"Not for running tales. She's wanted for her teats, not for her tongue. I'll have more milk from her, and fewer messages."
"Castle Black needs no useless mouths," Jon agreed. "I am sending Gilly south on the next ship out of Eastwatch."
Melisandre touched the ruby at her neck. "Gilly is giving suck to Dalla's son as well as her own. It seems cruel of you to part our little prince from his milk brother, my lord."
Careful now, careful. "Mother's milk is all they share. Gilly's son is larger and more robust. He kicks the prince and pinches him, and shoves him from the breast. Craster was his father, a cruel man and greedy, and blood tells."
Stannis furrowed his brow. "I was told that the wet nurse was this man Craster's wife."
"Wife and daughter both. Craster married all his daughters. Gilly's boy was the fruit of their union."
"Her own father got this child on her? We are well rid of her, then. I will not suffer such abominations here. This is not King's Landing."
"I can find another wet nurse. If there's none amongst the wildlings, I will send to the mountain clans. Until such time, goat's milk should suffice for the boy, if it please Your Grace."
"Poor fare for a prince... but better than whore's milk, aye." Stannis drummed his fingers on the map. "If we may return to the matter of these forts... "
"Your Grace," said Jon, with chilly courtesy, "I have housed your men and fed them, at dire cost to our winter stores. I have clothed them so they would not freeze."
Stannis was not appeased. "Aye, you've shared your salt pork and porridge, and you've thrown us some black rags to keep us warm. Rags the wildlings would have taken off your corpses if I had not come north."
Jon ignored that. "I have given you fodder for your horses, and once the stair is done I will lend you builders to restore the Nightfort. I have even agreed to allow you to settle wildlings on the Gift, which was given to the Night's Watch in perpetuity."
"You offer me empty lands and desolations, yet deny me the castles I require to reward my lords and bannermen."
"The Night's Watch built those castles... "
"And the Night's Watch abandoned them."
"... to defend the Wall," Jon finished stubbornly, "not as seats for wildlings and southron lords. The stones of those forts are mortared with the blood and bones of my brothers, long dead. I cannot give them to you."
"Cannot or will not?" The cords in the king's neck stood out sharp as swords. "And to think, I offered you a name."
"I have a name, Your Grace."
"Snow. Was ever a name more ill-omened?" Stannis touched his sword hilt. "Just who do you imagine that you are?"
"The watcher on the walls. The sword in the darkness."
"Don't prate your words at me." Stannis drew the longsword he called Lightbringer. "Here is your sword in the darkness." Light rippled up and down the blade, now red, now yellow, nor orange, painting the king's face in harsh, bright hues. "Even a green boy should be able to see that. Are you blind?"
"No, Sire. I agree these castles must be garrisoned - "
"The boy commander agrees. How fortunate."
" - by the Night's Watch," Jon finished.
"You do not have the men."
"Then give them to me, Sire. I will provide officers for each of the abandoned forts, seasoned men who know the Wall and the lands beyond, who know how best to survive the winter that is coming. In return for all we've given you, grant me the men to fill out the garrisons. Men-at-arms, crossbowmen, raw boys. I will even take your wounded and infirm."
Stannis stared at him incredulously, then gave a bark of laughter. "You are bold enough, Snow, I grant you that, but you're mad if you think my men will take the black."
"They can wear any color cloak they choose, so long as they obey my officers as they would your own."
The king was unmoved. "I have knights and lords in my service, the scions of noble Houses old in honor. They cannot be expected to serve under poachers, peasants, and murderers."
Or bastards, sire? "Your own Hand is a smuggler."
"Was a smuggler. I shortened his fingers for that. They tell me that you are the nine-hundred-ninety-eighth man to command the Night's Watch, Lord Snow. I wonder what the nine-hundred-ninety-ninth might say about these castles. The sight of your head on a spike might inspire him to be more helpful." The king lay his bright blade down on the map, along the Wall, its steel shimmering like sunlight on water. "You are only lord commander by my sufferance. You would do well to remember that."
"I am lord commander because my brothers chose me."
"Did they?" The map lay between them like a battleground, drenched by the colors of the glowing sword. "Alliser Thorne complains about the manner of your choosing, and I cannot say he does not have a grievance. The count was done by a blind man with your fat friend by his elbow. And Slynt names you a turncloak."
And who would know one better than Slynt? "A turncloak would tell you what you wished to hear and betray you later. Your Grace knows that I was fairly chosen. My father always said you were a just man." Just but harsh had been Lord Eddard's exact words, but Jon did not think it would be wise to share that.
"Lord Eddard was no friend of mine, but he was not without some sense," said Stannis. "He would have given me these castles."
Never. "I cannot speak to what my father might have done. I took an oath, Your Grace. The Wall is mine."
"For now. We will see how well you hold it." Stannis pointed at him. "Keep your ruins, as they mean so much to you. I promise you, though, if any remain empty when the year is out, I will take them with your leave or without it. And if even one should fall to the foe, your head will soon follow. Now get out."
Lady Melisandre rose from her place near the hearth. "With your leave, Sire, I will show Lord Snow back to his chambers."
"Why? He knows the way." Stannis waved them both away. "Do what you will. Devan, food. Boiled eggs and lemon water."
After the warmth of the king's solar, the turnpike stair felt bone-chillingly cold. "Wind's rising, m'lady," the serjeant warned Melisandre as he handed Jon back his weapons. "You might want a warmer cloak."
"I have my faith to warm me." The red woman walked beside Jon down the steps. "His Grace is growing fond of you."
"I can tell. He only threatened to behead me twice."
Melisandre laughed. "It is his silences you should fear, not his words." As they stepped out into the yard, the wind filled Jon's cloak and sent it flapping against her. The red priestess brushed the black wool aside and slipped her arm through his. "It is may be that you are not wrong about the wildling king. I shall gaze into the flames and pray for the Lord of Light to send me guidance. My fires show me much and more, Jon Snow. I can see through stone and earth, and find the truth in the darkness of men's souls. I can speak to kings long dead and children not yet born, and watch the years and seasons flicker past, until the end of days."
"Are your fires never wrong?"
"Never... though we priests are mortal and sometimes err, mistaking this must come from this may come."
Jon could feel her heat, even through his wool and boiled leather. The sight of them arm in arm was drawing curious looks. They will be whispering in the barracks tonight. "If you can truly see the morrow in your flames, tell me when and where the next wildling attack will come," he said, pulling free of her.
"R'hllor sends us what visions he will, but I shall seek for this man Tormund in the flames." Melisandre's red lips curled into a smile. "I have seen you in my fires, Jon Snow."
"Is that a threat, my lady? Do you mean to burn me too?"
"You mistake my meaning." She laughed. "I fear that I make you uneasy, Lord Snow."
Jon did not deny it. "The Wall is no place for a woman."
"You are wrong. I have dreamed of your Wall, Jon Snow. Great was the lore that raised it, and great the spells locked beneath its ice. We walk beneath one of the hinges of the world." Melisandre gazed up at it tenderly, her breath a warm moist cloud in the air. "This is my place as it is yours, and soon enough you may have grave need of me. Do not refuse my friendship, Jon. I have seen you in the storm, hard pressed, with enemies on every side. You have so many enemies. Shall I tell you their names?"
"I know their names."
"Do not be so certain." The ruby at Melisandre's throat gleamed redly. "It is not the foes who curse you to your face that you must fear, but those who smile when you are looking and sharpen their knives when you turn your back. You would do well to keep your wolf close beside you. Ice, I see, and daggers in the dark. Blood frozen red and hard, and naked steel. It was very cold."