"Sam." Her voice sounded raw. Gilly was dark-haired and slim, with the big brown eyes of a doe. She was swallowed by the folds of Sam's old cloak, her face half-hidden by its hood, but shivering all the same. Her face looked wan and frightened.
"What's wrong?" Sam asked her. "How are the babes?"
Gilly pulled loose from him. "They're good, Sam. Good."
"Between the two of them it's a wonder you can sleep," Sam said pleasantly. "Which one was it that I heard crying last night? I thought he'd never stop."
"Dalla's boy. He cries when he wants the teat. Mine . . . mine hardly ever cries. Sometimes he gurgles, but . . ." Her eyes filled with tears. "I have to go. It's past time that I fed them. I'll be leaking all over myself if I don't go." She rushed across the yard, leaving Sam perplexed behind her.
He had to get down on his knees to gather up the books he'd dropped. I should not have brought so many, he told himself as he brushed the dirt off Colloquo Votar's Jade Compendium, a thick volume of tales and legends from the east that Maester Aemon had commanded him to find. The book appeared undamaged. Maester Thomax's Dragonkin, Being a History of House Targaryen from Exile to Apotheosis, with a Consideration of the Life and Death of Dragons had not been so fortunate. It had come open as it fell, and a few pages had gotten muddy, including one with a rather nice picture of Balerion the Black Dread done in colored inks. Sam cursed himself for a clumsy oaf as he smoothed the pages down and brushed them off. Gilly's presence always flustered him and gave rise to . . . well, risings. A Sworn Brother of the Night's Watch should not be feeling the sorts of things that Gilly made him feel, especially when she would talk about her br**sts and . . .
"Lord Snow is waiting." Two guards in black cloaks and iron halfhelms stood by the doors of the armory, leaning on their spears. Hairy Hal was the one who'd spoken. Mully helped Sam back to his feet. He blurted out thanks and hurried past them, clutching desperately at the stack of books as he made his way past the forge with its anvil and bellows. A shirt of ringmail rested on his workbench, half-completed. Ghost was stretched out beneath the anvil, gnawing on the bone of an ox to get at the marrow. The big white direwolf looked up when Sam went by, but made no sound.
Jon's solar was back beyond the racks of spears and shields. He was reading a parchment when Sam entered. Lord Commander Mormont's raven was on his shoulder, peering down as if it were reading too, but when the bird spied Sam it spread its wings and flapped toward him crying, "Corn, corn!"
Shifting the books, Sam thrust his arm into the sack beside the door and came out with a handful of kernels. The raven landed on his wrist and took one from his palm, pecking so hard that Sam yelped and snatched his hand back. The raven took to the air again, and yellow and red kernels went everywhere.
"Close the door, Sam." Faint scars still marked Jon's cheek, where an eagle had once tried to rip his eye out. "Did that wretch break the skin?"
Sam eased the books down and peeled off his glove. "He did." He felt faint. "I'm bleeding."
"We all shed our blood for the Watch. Wear thicker gloves." Jon shoved a chair toward him with a foot. "Sit, and have a look at this." He handed him the parchment.
"What is it?" asked Sam. The raven began to hunt out corn kernels amongst the rushes.
"A paper shield."
Sam sucked at the blood on his palm as he read. He knew Maester Aemon's hand on sight. His writing was small and precise, but the old man could not see where the ink had blotted, and sometimes he left unsightly smears. "A letter to King Tommen?"
"At Winterfell Tommen fought my brother Bran with wooden swords. He wore so much padding he looked like a stuffed goose. Bran knocked him to the ground." Jon went to the window. "Yet Bran's dead, and pudgy pink-faced Tommen is sitting on the Iron Throne, with a crown nestled amongst his golden curls."
Bran's not dead, Sam wanted to say. He's gone beyond the Wall with Coldhands. The words caught in his throat. I swore I would not tell. "You haven't signed the letter."
"The Old Bear begged the Iron Throne for help a hundred times. They sent him Janos Slynt. No letter will make the Lannisters love us better. Not once they hear that we've been helping Stannis."
"Only to defend the Wall, not in his rebellion." Sam read the letter quickly once again. "That's what it says here."
"The distinction may escape Lord Tywin." Jon took the letter back. "Why would he help us now? He never did before."
"Well," said Sam, "he will not want it said that Stannis rode to the defense of the realm whilst King Tommen was playing with his toys. That would bring scorn down upon House Lannister."
"It's death and destruction I want to bring down upon House Lannister, not scorn." Jon lifted up the letter. "The Night's Watch takes no part in the wars of the Seven Kingdoms," he read. "Our oaths are sworn to the realm, and the realm now stands in dire peril. Stannis Baratheon aids us against our foes from beyond the Wall, though we are not his men . . ."
"Well," said Sam, squirming, "we're not. Are we?"
"I gave Stannis food, shelter, and the Nightfort, plus leave to settle some free folk in the Gift. That's all."
"Lord Tywin will say it was too much."
"Stannis says it's not enough. The more you give a king the more he wants. We are walking on a bridge of ice with an abyss on either side. Pleasing one king is difficult enough. Pleasing two is hardly possible."
"Yes, but . . . if the Lannisters should prevail and Lord Tywin decides that we betrayed the king by aiding Stannis, it could mean the end of the Night's Watch. He has the Tyrells behind him, with all the strength of Highgarden. And he did defeat Lord Stannis on the Blackwater." The sight of blood might make Sam faint, but he knew how wars were won. His own father had seen to that.
"The Blackwater was one battle. Robb won all his battles and still lost his head. If Stannis can raise the north . . ."
He's trying to convince himself, Sam realized, but he can't. The ravens had gone forth from Castle Black in a storm of black wings, summoning the lords of the north to declare for Stannis Baratheon and join their strength to his. Sam had sent out most of them himself. Thusfar only one bird had returned, the one they'd sent to Karhold. Elsewise the silence had been thunderous.
Even if he should somehow win the northmen to his side, Sam did not see how Stannis could hope to match the combined powers of Casterly Rock, Highgarden, and the Twins. Yet without the north, his cause was surely doomed. As doomed as the Night's Watch, if Lord Tywin marks us down as traitors. "The Lannisters have northmen of their own. Lord Bolton and his bastard."
"Stannis has the Karstarks. If he can win White Harbor . . ."
"If," Sam stressed. "If not . . . my lord, even a paper shield is better than none."
Jon rattled the letter. "I suppose so." He sighed, then took up a quill and scrawled a signature across the bottom of the letter. "Get the sealing wax." Sam heated a stick of black wax over a candle and dribbled some onto the parchment, then watched as Jon pressed the Lord Commander's seal down firmly on the puddle. "Take this to Maester Aemon when you leave," he commanded, "and tell him to dispatch a bird to King's Landing."
"I will." Sam hesitated. "My lord, if I might ask . . . I saw Gilly leaving. She was almost crying."
"Val sent her to plead for Mance again."
"Oh." Val was the sister of the woman the King-beyond-the-Wall had taken for his queen. The wildling princess was what Stannis and his men were calling her. Her sister Dalla had died during the battle, though no blade had ever touched her; she had perished giving birth to Mance Rayder's son. Rayder himself would soon follow her to the grave, if the whispers Sam had heard had any truth to them. "What did you tell her?"
"That I would speak to Stannis, though I doubt my words will sway him. A king's first duty is to defend the realm, and Mance attacked it. His Grace is not like to forget that. My father used to say that Stannis Baratheon was a just man. No one has ever said he was forgiving." Jon paused, frowning. "I would sooner take off Mance's head myself. He was a man of the Night's Watch, once. By rights, his life belongs to us."
"Pyp says that Lady Melisandre means to give him to the flames, to work some sorcery."
"Pyp should learn to hold his tongue. I have heard the same from others. King's blood, to wake a dragon. Where Melisandre thinks to find a sleeping dragon, no one is quite sure. It's nonsense. Mance's blood is no more royal than mine own. He has never worn a crown nor sat a throne. He's a brigand, nothing more. There's no power in brigand's blood."
The raven looked up from the floor. "Blood," it screamed.
Jon paid no mind. "I am sending Gilly away."
"Oh." Sam bobbed his head. "Well, that's . . . that's good, my lord." It would be the best thing for her, to go somewhere warm and safe, well away from the Wall and the fighting.
"Her and the boy. We will need to find another wet nurse for his milk brother."
"Goat's milk might serve, until you do. It's better for a babe than cow's milk." Sam had read that somewhere. He shifted in his seat. "My lord, when I was looking through the annals I came on another boy commander. Four hundred years before the Conquest. Osric Stark was ten when he was chosen, but he served for sixty years. That's four, my lord. You're not even close to being the youngest ever chosen. You're fifth youngest, so far."
"The younger four all being sons, brothers, or bastards of the King in the North. Tell me something useful. Tell me of our enemy."
"The Others." Sam licked his lips. "They are mentioned in the annals, though not as often as I would have thought. The annals I've found and looked at, that is. There's more I haven't found, I know. Some of the older books are falling to pieces. The pages crumble when I try and turn them. And the really old books . . . either they have crumbled all away or they are buried somewhere that I haven't looked yet or . . . well, it could be that there are no such books, and never were. The oldest histories we have were written after the Andals came to Westeros. The First Men only left us runes on rocks, so everything we think we know about the Age of Heroes and the Dawn Age and the Long Night comes from accounts set down by septons thousands of years later. There are archmaesters at the Citadel who question all of it. Those old histories are full of kings who reigned for hundreds of years, and knights riding around a thousand years before there were knights. You know the tales, Brandon the Builder, Symeon Star-Eyes, Night's King . . . we say that you're the nine hundred and ninety-eighth Lord Commander of the Night's Watch, but the oldest list I've found shows six hundred seventy-four commanders, which suggests that it was written during . . ."
"Long ago," Jon broke in. "What about the Others?"
"I found mention of dragonglass. The children of the forest used to give the Night's Watch a hundred obsidian daggers every year, during the Age of Heroes. The Others come when it is cold, most of the tales agree. Or else it gets cold when they come. Sometimes they appear during snowstorms and melt away when the skies clear. They hide from the light of the sun and emerge by night . . . or else night falls when they emerge. Some stories speak of them riding the corpses of dead animals. Bears, direwolves, mammoths, horses, it makes no matter, so long as the beast is dead. The one that killed Small Paul was riding a dead horse, so that part's plainly true. Some accounts speak of giant ice spiders too. I don't know what those are. Men who fall in battle against the Others must be burned, or else the dead will rise again as their thralls."