"Snow." An icicle tumbled from a branch. The white wolf turned and bared his teeth. "Snow! " His fur rose bristling, as the woods dissolved around him. "Snow, snow, snow! " He heard 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.
"I hear you." The room was dim, his pallet hard. Grey light leaked through the shutters, promising another bleak cold day. "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," he 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." Having a steward fetch and serve for him still felt strange; not long ago, it would have been him fetching breakfast for Lord Commander Mormont.
"Three corns and one roast raven," said Dolorous Edd. "Very good, m'lord, only Hobb's made boiled eggs, black sausage, and apples stewed with prunes. The apples stewed with prunes are excellent, except for the prunes. I won't 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, m'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 raven. It was one of the bird's favorite words.
"Dead, dead, dead. "
They had free folk drifting in most every night, starved half-frozen creatures who had run from the battle beneath the Wall only to crawl back when they realized there was no safe place to run to. "Was the mother questioned?" Jon asked. Stannis Baratheon had smashed Mance Rayder's host 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, 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. The father first and then the son, so both die kings. The words had been murmured by one of the queen's men as Maester Aemon had cleaned his wounds. Jon had tried to dismiss them as his fever talking. Aemon had demurred. "There is power in a king's blood," the old maester had 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.
Jon pissed in darkness, filling his chamber pot as the Old Bear's raven muttered complaints. The wolf dreams had been growing stronger, and he 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 his wolf had perished with him. Bran and Rickon had been murdered too, beheaded at the behest of Theon Greyjoy, who had once been their lord father's ward ... but if 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.
He 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?" When Jon 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.
Outside 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. In time, no doubt, he would need larger quarters, but for the moment these would serve whilst he accustomed himself to command.
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 sword belt 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, 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 clubfoot 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."
"Yes, m'lord. I'll keep it higher next time." Horse pulled Hop-Robin to his feet, and the smaller boy made a clumsy bow. A few of Stannis's knights were sparring on the far side of the yard. King' s men in one corner and queen' s men in another, Jon did not fail to note, but only a few. It' s too cold for most of them. As he 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. "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 a 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. 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 us. I promise not to hurt you, lad."
How kind of you. "Some other time, ser. I fear that I have other duties just now."
"You fear. I see that." Ser Godry grinned at his friends. "He fears," he repeated, 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 strong-hold. 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 rose the Wall: immense, forbidding, frigid, acrawl with builders pushing up a new switchback stair to join the remnants of the old. 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 from 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.
"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.