"We knew all this. The question is, how do we fight them?"
"The armor of the Others is proof against most ordinary blades, if the tales can be believed," said Sam, "and their own swords are so cold they shatter steel. Fire will dismay them, though, and they are vulnerable to obsidian." He remembered the one he had faced in the haunted forest, and how it had seemed to melt away when he stabbed it with the dragonglass dagger Jon had made for him. "I found one account of the Long Night that spoke of the last hero slaying Others with a blade of dragonsteel. Supposedly they could not stand against it."
"Dragonsteel?" Jon frowned. "Valyrian steel?"
"That was my first thought as well."
"So if I can just convince the lords of the Seven Kingdoms to give us their Valyrian blades, all is saved? That won't be hard." His laugh had no mirth in it. "Did you find who the Others are, where they come from, what they want?"
"Not yet, my lord, but it may be that I've just been reading the wrong books. There are hundreds I have not looked at yet. Give me more time and I will find whatever there is to be found."
"There is no more time." Jon sounded sad. "You need to get your things together, Sam. You're going with Gilly."
"Going?" For a moment Sam did not understand. "I'm going? To Eastwatch, my lord? Or . . . where am I . . ."
"Oldtown?" It came out in a squeak. Horn Hill was close to Oldtown. Home. The notion made him light-headed. My father.
"Aemon as well."
"Aemon? Maester Aemon? But . . . he's one hundred and two years old, my lord, he can't . . . you're sending him and me? Who will tend the ravens? If they're sick or wounded, who . . ."
"Clydas. He's been with Aemon for years."
"Clydas is only a steward, and his eyes are going bad. You need a maester. Maester Aemon is so frail, a sea voyage . . ." He thought of the Arbor and the Arbor Queen, and almost choked on his tongue. "It might . . . he's old, and . . ."
"His life will be at risk. I am aware of that, Sam, but the risk is greater here. Stannis knows who Aemon is. If the red woman requires king's blood for her spells . . ."
"Oh." Sam paled.
"Dareon will join you at Eastwatch. My hope is that his songs will win some men for us in the south. The Blackbird will deliver you to Braavos. From there you'll arrange your own passage to Oldtown. If you still mean to claim Gilly's babe as your bastard, send her and the child on to Horn Hill. Elsewise, Aemon will find a servant's place for her at the Citadel."
"My b-b-bastard." He had said that, yes, but . . . All that water. I could drown. Ships sink all the time, and autumn is a stormy season. Gilly would be with him, though, and the babe would grow up safe. "Yes, I . . . my mother and my sisters will help Gilly with the child." I can send a letter, I won't need to go to Horn Hill myself. "Dareon could see her to Oldtown just as well as me. I'm . . . I've been working at my archery every afternoon with Ulmer, as you commanded . . . well, except when I'm in the vaults, but you told me to find out about the Others. The longbow makes my shoulders ache and raises blisters on my fingers." He showed Jon where one had burst. "I still do it, though. I can hit the target more often than not now, but I'm still the worst archer who ever bent a bow. I like Ulmer's stories, though. Someone needs to write them down and put them in a book."
"You do it. They have parchment and ink at the Citadel, as well as longbows. I will expect you to continue with your practice. Sam, the Night's Watch has hundreds of men who can loose an arrow, but only a handful who can read or write. I need you to become my new maester."
The word made him flinch. No, Father, please, I won't speak of it again, I swear it by the Seven. Let me out, please let me out. "My lord, I . . . my work is here, the books . . ."
". . . will be here when you return to us."
Sam put a hand to his throat. He could almost feel the chain there, choking him. "My lord, the Citadel . . . they make you cut up corpses there." They make you wear a chain about your neck. If it is chains you want, come with me. For three days and three nights Sam had sobbed himself to sleep, manacled hand and foot to a wall. The chain around his throat was so tight it broke the skin, and whenever he rolled the wrong way in his sleep it would cut off his breath. "I cannot wear a chain."
"You can. You will. Maester Aemon is old and blind. His strength is leaving him. Who will take his place when he dies? Maester Mullin at the Shadow Tower is more fighter than scholar, and Maester Harmune of Eastwatch is drunk more than he's sober."
"If you ask the Citadel for more maesters . . ."
"I mean to. We'll have need of every one. Aemon Targaryen is not so easily replaced, however." Jon seemed puzzled. "I was certain this would please you. There are so many books at the Citadel that no man can hope to read them all. You would do well there, Sam. I know you would."
"No. I could read the books, but . . . a m-maester must be a healer and b-b-blood makes me faint." He held out a shaky hand for Jon to see. "I'm Sam the Scared, not Sam the Slayer."
"Scared? Of what? The chidings of old men? Sam, you saw the wights come swarming up the Fist, a tide of living dead men with black hands and bright blue eyes. You slew an Other."
"It was the d-d-d-dragonglass, not me."
"Be quiet. You lied and schemed and plotted to make me Lord Commander. You will obey me. You'll go to the Citadel and forge a chain, and if you have to cut up corpses, so be it. At least in Oldtown the corpses won't object."
He doesn't understand. "My lord," Sam said, "my f-f-f-father, Lord Randyll, he, he, he, he, he . . . the life of a maester is a life of servitude." He was babbling, he knew. "No son of House Tarly will ever wear a chain. The men of Horn Hill do not bow and scrape to petty lords." If it is chains you want, come with me. "Jon, I cannot disobey my father."
Jon, he'd said, but Jon was gone. It was Lord Snow who faced him now, grey eyes as hard as ice. "You have no father," said Lord Snow. "Only brothers. Only us. Your life belongs to the Night's Watch, so go and stuff your smallclothes into a sack, along with anything else you care to take to Oldtown. You leave an hour before sunrise. And here's another order. From this day forth, you will not call yourself a craven. You've faced more things this past year than most men face in a lifetime. You can face the Citadel, but you'll face it as a Sworn Brother of the Night's Watch. I can't command you to be brave, but I can command you to hide your fears. You said the words, Sam. Remember?"
I am the sword in the darkness. But he was wretched with a sword, and the darkness scared him. "I . . . I'll try."
"You won't try. You will obey."
"Obey." Mormont's raven flapped its great black wings.
"As my lord commands. Does . . . does Maester Aemon know?"
"It was as much his idea as mine." Jon opened the door for him. "No farewells. The fewer folk who know of this, the better. An hour before first light, by the lichyard."
Sam did not recall leaving the armory. The next thing he knew he was stumbling through mud and patches of old snow, toward Maester Aemon's chambers. I could hide, he told himself. I could hide in the vaults amongst the books. I could live down there with the mouse and sneak up at night to steal food. Crazed thoughts, he knew, as futile as they were desperate. The vaults were the first place they would look for him. The last place they would look for him was beyond the Wall, but that was even madder. The wildlings would catch me and kill me slowly. They might burn me alive, the way the red woman means to burn Mance Rayder.
When he found Maester Aemon in the rookery, he gave him Jon's letter and blurted out his fears in a great green gush of words. "He does not understand." Sam felt as if he might throw up. "If I don a chain, my lord f-f-f-father . . . he, he, he . . ."
"My own father raised the same objections when I chose a life of service," the old man said. "It was his father who sent me to the Citadel. King Daeron had sired four sons, and three had sons of their own. Too many dragons are as dangerous as too few, I heard His Grace tell my lord father, the day they sent me off." Aemon raised a spotted hand to the chain of many metals that dangled loose about his thin neck. "The chain is heavy, Sam, but my grandsire had the right of it. So does your Lord Snow."
"Snow," a raven muttered. "Snow," another echoed. All of them picked it up then. "Snow, snow, snow, snow, snow." Sam had taught them that word. There was no help here, he saw. Maester Aemon was as trapped as he was. He will die at sea, he thought, despairing. He is too old to survive such a voyage. Gilly's little son may die as well, he's not as large and strong as Dalla's boy. Does Jon mean to kill us all?
The next morning, Sam found himself saddling the mare he'd ridden from Horn Hill and leading her toward the lichyard beside the eastern road. Her saddlebags bulged with cheese and sausages and hard-cooked eggs, and half a salted ham that Three-Finger Hobb had given him on his name day. "You're a man who appreciates cooking, Slayer," the cook had said. "We need more o' your sort." The ham would help, no doubt. Eastwatch was a long cold ride away, and there were no towns nor inns in the shadow of the Wall.
The hour before dawn was dark and still. Castle Black seemed strangely hushed. At the lichyard, a pair of two-wheeled wayns awaited him, along with Black Jack Bulwer and a dozen seasoned rangers, tough as the garrons they rode. Kedge Whiteye cursed loudly when his one good eye spied Sam. "Don't mind him, Slayer," said Black Jack. "He lost a wager, said we'd need to drag you out squealing from beneath some bed."
Maester Aemon was too frail to ride a horse, so a wayn had been made ready for him, its bed heaped high with furs, and a leather awning fastened overhead to keep off the rain and snow. Gilly and her child would ride with him. The second wayn would carry their clothing and possessions, along with a chest of rare old books that Aemon thought the Citadel might lack. Sam had spent half the night searching for them, though he'd found only one in four. And a good thing, or we'd need another wayn.
When the maester appeared, he was bundled up in a bearskin three times his size. As Clydas led him toward the wayn, a gust of wind came up, and the old man staggered. Sam hurried to his side and put an arm about him. Another gust like that could blow him over the Wall. "Keep hold of my arm, maester. It's not far."
The blind man nodded as the wind pushed back their hoods. "It is always warm in Oldtown. There is an inn on an island in the Honeywine where I used to go when I was a young novice. It will be pleasant to sit there once again, sipping cider."
By the time they got the maester into the wayn, Gilly had appeared, the child bundled in her arms. Beneath her hood her eyes were red from crying. Jon turned up at the same time, with Dolorous Edd. "Lord Snow," Maester Aemon called, "I left a book for you in my chambers. The Jade Compendium. It was written by the Volantene adventurer Colloquo Votar, who traveled to the east and visited all the lands of the Jade Sea. There is a passage you may find of interest. I've told Clydas to mark it for you."