Chapter Five SAMWELL
Sam was reading about the Others when he saw the mouse.
His eyes were red and raw. I ought not rub them so much, he always told himself as he rubbed them. The dust made them itch and water, and the dust was everywhere down here. Little puffs of it filled the air every time a page was turned, and it rose in grey clouds whenever he shifted a stack of books to see what might be hiding on the bottom.
Sam did not know how long it had been since last he'd slept, but scarce an inch remained of the fat tallow candle he'd lit when starting on the ragged bundle of loose pages that he'd found tied up in twine. He was beastly tired, but it was hard to stop. One more book, he had told himself, then I'll stop. One more folio, just one more. One more page, then I'll go up and rest and get a bite to eat. But there was always another page after that one, and another after that, and another book waiting underneath the pile. I'll just take a quick peek to see what this one is about, he'd think, and before he knew he would be halfway through it. He had not eaten since that bowl of bean-and-bacon soup with Pyp and Grenn. Well, except for the bread and cheese, but that was only a nibble, he thought. That was when he took a quick glance at the empty platter, and spied the mouse feasting on the bread crumbs.
The mouse was half as long as his pinky finger, with black eyes and soft grey fur. Sam knew he ought to kill it. Mice might prefer bread and cheese, but they ate paper too. He had found plenty of mouse droppings amongst the shelves and stacks, and some of the leather covers on the books showed signs of being gnawed.
It is such a little thing, though. And hungry. How could he begrudge it a few crumbs? It's eating books, though . . .
After hours in the chair Sam's back was stiff as a board, and his legs were half-asleep. He knew he was not quick enough to catch the mouse, but it might be he could squash it. By his elbow rested a massive leather-bound copy of Annals of the Black Centaur, Septon Jorquen's exhaustively detailed account of the nine years that Orbert Caswell had served as Lord Commander of the Night's Watch. There was a page for each day of his term, every one of which seemed to begin, "Lord Orbert rose at dawn and moved his bowels," except for the last, which said, "Lord Orbert was found to have died during the night."
No mouse is a match for Septon Jorquen. Very slowly, Sam took hold of the book with his left hand. It was thick and heavy, and when he tried to lift it one-handed, it slipped from his plump fingers and thumped back down. The mouse was gone in half a heartbeat, skittery-quick. Sam was relieved. Squishing the poor little thing would have given him nightmares. "You shouldn't eat the books, though," he said aloud. Maybe he should bring more cheese the next time he came down here.
He was surprised at how low the candle had burned. Had the bean-and-bacon soup been today or yesterday? Yesterday. It must have been yesterday. The realization made him yawn. Jon would be wondering what had become of him, though Maester Aemon would no doubt understand. Before he had lost his sight, the maester had loved books as much as Samwell Tarly did. He understood the way that you could sometimes fall right into them, as if each page was a hole into another world.
Pushing himself to his feet, Sam grimaced at the pins and needles in his calves. The chair was very hard and cut into the back of his thighs when he bent over a book. I need to remember to bring a cushion. It would be even better if he could sleep down here, in the cell he'd found half-hidden behind four chests full of loose pages that had gotten separated from the books they belonged to, but he did not want to leave Maester Aemon alone for so long. He had not been strong of late and required help, especially with the ravens. Aemon had Clydas, to be sure, but Sam was younger, and better with the birds.
With a stack of books and scrolls under his left arm and the candle in his right hand, Sam made his way through the tunnels the brothers called the wormways. A pale shaft of light illuminated the steep stone steps that led up to the surface, so he knew that day had come up top. He left the candle burning in a wall niche and began the climb. By the fifth step he was puffing. At the tenth he stopped to shift the books to his right arm.
He emerged beneath a sky the color of white lead. A snow sky, Sam thought, squinting up. The prospect made him uneasy. He remembered that night on the Fist of the First Men when the wights and the snows had come together. Don't be so craven, he thought. You have your Sworn Brothers all around you, not to mention Stannis Baratheon and all his knights. Castle Black's keeps and towers rose about him, dwarfed by the icy immensity of the Wall. A small army was crawling over the ice a quarter of the way up, where a new switchback stair was creeping upward to meet the remnants of the old one. The sounds of their saws and hammers echoed off the ice. Jon had the builders working night and day on the task. Sam had heard some of them complaining about it over supper, insisting that Lord Mormont never worked them half so hard. Without the great stair there was no way to reach the top of the Wall except by the chain winch, however. And as much as Samwell Tarly hated steps, he hated the winch cage more. He always closed his eyes when he was riding it, convinced that the chain was about to break. Every time the iron cage scraped against the ice his heart stopped beating for an instant.
There were dragons here two hundred years ago, Sam found himself thinking, as he watched the cage making a slow descent. They would just have flown to the top of the Wall. Queen Alysanne had visited Castle Black on her dragon, and Jaehaerys, her king, had come after her on his own. Could Silverwing have left an egg behind? Or had Stannis found one egg on Dragonstone? Even if he has an egg, how can he hope to quicken it? Baelor the Blessed had prayed over his eggs, and other Targaryens had sought to hatch theirs with sorcery. All they got for it was farce and tragedy.
"Samwell," said a glum voice, "I was coming to fetch you. I was told to bring you to the Lord Commander."
A snowflake landed on Sam's nose. "Jon wants to see me?"
"As to that, I could not say," said Dolorous Edd Tollett. "I never wanted to see half the things I've seen, and I've never seen half the things I wanted to. I don't think wanting comes into it. You'd best go all the same. Lord Snow wishes to speak with you as soon as he is done with Craster's wife."
"That's the one. If my wet nurse had looked like her, I'd still be on the teat. Mine had whiskers."
"Most goats do," called Pyp, as he and Grenn emerged from around the corner, with longbows in hand and quivers of arrows on their backs. "Where have you been, Slayer? We missed you last night at supper. A whole roast ox went uneaten."
"Don't call me Slayer." Sam ignored the gibe about the ox. That was just Pyp. "I was reading. There was a mouse . . ."
"Don't mention mice to Grenn. He's terrified of mice."
"I am not," Grenn declared with indignation.
"You'd be too scared to eat one."
"I'd eat more mice than you would."
Dolorous Edd Tollett gave a sigh. "When I was a lad, we only ate mice on special feast days. I was the youngest, so I always got the tail. There's no meat on the tail."
"Where's your longbow, Sam?" asked Grenn. Ser Alliser used to call him Aurochs, and every day he seemed to grow into the name a little more. He had come to the Wall big but slow, thick of neck, thick of waist, red of face, and clumsy. Though his neck still reddened when Pyp twisted him around into some folly, hours of work with sword and shield had flattened his belly, hardened his arms, broadened his chest. He was strong, and shaggy as an aurochs too. "Ulmer was expecting you at the butts."
"Ulmer," Sam said, abashed. Almost the first thing Jon Snow had done as Lord Commander was institute daily archery drill for the entire garrison, even stewards and cooks. The Watch had been placing too much emphasis on the sword and too little on the bow, he had said, a relic of the days when one brother in every ten had been a knight, instead of one in every hundred. Sam saw the sense in the decree, but he hated longbow practice almost as much as he hated climbing steps. When he wore his gloves he could never hit anything, but when he took them off he got blisters on his fingers. Those bows were dangerous. Satin had torn off half his thumbnail on a bowstring. "I forgot."
"You broke the heart of the wildling princess, Slayer," said Pyp. Of late, Val had taken to watching them from the window of her chamber in the King's Tower. "She was looking for you."
"She was not! Don't say that!" Sam had only spoken to Val twice, when Maester Aemon called upon her to make sure the babes were healthy. The princess was so pretty that he oft found himself stammering and blushing in her presence.
"Why not?" asked Pyp. "She wants to have your children. Maybe we should call you Sam the Seducer."
Sam reddened. King Stannis had plans for Val, he knew; she was the mortar with which he meant to seal the peace between the northmen and the free folk. "I don't have time for archery today, I need to go see Jon."
"Jon? Jon? Do we know anyone named Jon, Grenn?"
"He means the Lord Commander."
"Ohhh. The Great Lord Snow. To be sure. Why do you want to see him? He can't even wiggle his ears." Pyp wiggled his, to show he could. They were large ears, and red from cold. "He's Lord Snow for true now, too bloody highborn for the likes of us."
"Jon has duties," Sam said in his defense. "The Wall is his, and all that goes with it."
"A man has duties to his friends as well. If not for us, Janos Slynt might be our lord commander. Lord Janos would have sent Snow ranging naked on a mule. 'Scamper on up to Craster's Keep,' he would have said, 'and fetch me back the Old Bear's cloak and boots.' We saved him from that, but now he has too many duties to drink a cup of mulled wine by the fire?"
Grenn agreed. "His duties don't keep him from the yard. More days than not, he's out there fighting someone."
That was true, Sam had to admit. Once, when Jon came to consult with Maester Aemon, Sam had asked him why he spent so much time at swordplay. "The Old Bear never trained much when he was Lord Commander," he had pointed out. In answer, Jon had pressed Longclaw into Sam's hand. He let him feel the lightness, the balance, had him turn the blade so that ripples gleamed in the smoke-dark metal. "Valyrian steel," he said, "spell-forged and razor-sharp, nigh on indestructible. A swordsman should be as good as his sword, Sam. Longclaw is Valyrian steel, but I'm not. The Halfhand could have killed me as easy as you swat a bug."
Sam handed back the sword. "When I try to swat a bug, it always flies away. All I do is slap my arm. It stings."
That made Jon laugh. "As you will. Qhorin could have killed me as easy as you eat a bowl of porridge." Sam was fond of porridge, especially when it was sweetened with honey.
"I don't have time for this." Sam left his friends and made his way toward the armory, clutching his books to his chest. I am the shield that guards the realms of men, he remembered. He wondered what those men would say if they realized their realms were being guarded by the likes of Grenn, Pyp, and Dolorous Edd.
The Lord Commander's Tower had been gutted by fire, and Stannis Baratheon had claimed the King's Tower for his own residence, so Jon Snow had established himself in Donal Noye's modest quarters behind the armory. Gilly was leaving as Sam arrived, wrapped up in the old cloak he'd given her when they were fleeing Craster's Keep. She almost rushed right past him, but Sam caught her arm, spilling two books as he did. "Gilly."