Side by side they leapt the ditch. "Two went into the flames." A gust of wind lifted the red woman's scarlet skirts till she pressed them down again. "One emerges." Her coppery hair danced about her head. "What fire joins, none may put asunder."
"What fire joins, none may put asunder, " came the echo, from queen's men and Thenns and even a few of the black brothers. Except for kings and uncles, thought Jon Snow.
Cregan Karstark had turned up a day behind his niece. With him came four mounted men-at-arms, a huntsman, and a pack of dogs, sniffing after Lady Alys as if she were a deer. Jon Snow met them on the kingsroad half a league south of Mole's Town, before they could turn up at Castle Black, claim guest right, or call for parley. One of Karstark's men had loosed a crossbow quarrel at Ty and died for it. That left four, and Cregan himself. Fortunately they had a dozen ice cells. Room for all.
Like so much else, heraldry ended at the Wall. The Thenns had no family arms as was customary amongst the nobles of the Seven Kingdoms, so Jon told the stewards to improvise. He thought they had done well. The bride's cloak Sigorn fastened about Lady Alys's shoulders showed a bronze disk on a field of white wool, surrounded by flames made with wisps of crimson silk. The echo of the Karstark sunburst was there for those who cared to look, but differenced to make the arms appropriate for House Thenn.
The Magnar all but ripped the maiden's cloak from Alys's shoulders, but when he fastened her bride's cloak about her he was almost tender. As he leaned down to kiss her cheek, their breath mingled. The flames roared once again. The queen's men began to sing a song of praise. "Is it done?"
Jon heard Satin whisper.
"Done and done," muttered Mully, "and a good thing. They're wed and I'm half-froze." He was muffled up in his best blacks, woolens so new that they had hardly had a chance to fade yet, but the wind had turned his cheeks as red as his hair. "Hobb's mulled some wine with cinnamon and cloves. That'll warm us some."
"What's cloves?" asked Owen the Oaf.
The snow had started to descend more heavily and the fire in the ditch was guttering out. The crowd began to break apart and stream from the yard, queen's men, king's men, and free folk alike, all anxious to get out of the wind and the cold. "Will my lord be feasting with us?" Mully asked Jon Snow.
"Shortly." Sigorn might take it as a slight if he did not appear. And this marriage is mine own work, after all. "I have other matters to attend to first, however."
Jon crossed to Queen Selyse, with Ghost beside him. His boots crunched through piles of old snow. It was growing ever more time-consuming to shovel out the paths from one building to another; more and more, the men were resorting to the underground passages they called wormways.
"... such a beautiful rite," the queen was saying. "I could feel our lord's fiery gaze upon us. Oh, you cannot know how many times I have begged Stannis to let us be wed again, a true joining of body and spirit blessed by the Lord of Light. I know that I could give His Grace more children if we were bound in fire."
To give him more children you would first need to get him into your bed. Even at the Wall, it was common knowledge that Stannis Baratheon had shunned his wife for years. One could only imagine how His Grace had responded to the notion of a second wedding in the midst of his war. Jon bowed. "If it please Your Grace, the feast awaits."
The queen glanced at Ghost suspiciously, then raised her head to Jon.
"To be sure. Lady Melisandre knows the way."
The red priestess spoke up. "I must attend my fires, Your Grace. Perhaps R'hllor will vouchsafe me a glimpse of His Grace. A glimpse of some great victory, mayhaps."
"Oh." Queen Selyse looked stricken. "To be sure ... let us pray for a vision from our lord ..."
"Satin, show Her Grace to her place," said Jon.
Ser Malegorn stepped forward. "I will escort Her Grace to the feast. We shall not require your ... steward." The way the man drew out the last word told Jon that he had been considering saying something else. Boy? Pet?
Jon bowed again. "As you wish. I shall join you shortly."
Ser Malegorn offered his arm, and Queen Selyse took it stiffly. Her other hand settled on her daughter's shoulder. The royal ducklings fell in behind them as they made their way across the yard, marching to the music of the bells on the fool's hat. "Under the sea the mermen feast on starfish soup, and all the serving men are crabs," Patchface proclaimed as they went.
"I know, I know, oh, oh, oh."
Melisandre's face darkened. "That creature is dangerous. Many a time I have glimpsed him in my flames. Sometimes there are skulls about him, and his lips are red with blood."
A wonder you haven' t had the poor man burned. All it would take was a word in the queen's ear, and Patchface would feed her fires. "You see fools in your fire, but no hint of Stannis?"
"When I search for him all I see is snow."
The same useless answer. Clydas had dispatched a raven to Deepwood Motte to warn the king of Arnolf Karstark's treachery, but whether the bird had reached His Grace in time Jon did not know. The Braavosi banker was off in search of Stannis as well, accompanied by the guides that Jon had given him, but between the war and weather, it would be a wonder if he found him. "Would you know if the king was dead?" Jon asked the red priestess.
"He is not dead. Stannis is the Lord's chosen, destined to lead the fight against the dark. I have seen it in the flames, read of it in ancient prophecy. When the red star bleeds and the darkness gathers, Azor Ahai shall be born again amidst smoke and salt to wake dragons out of stone. Dragon-stone is the place of smoke and salt."
Jon had heard all this before. "Stannis Baratheon was the Lord of Drag-onstone, but he was not born there. He was born at Storm's End, like his brothers." He frowned. "And what of Mance? Is he lost as well? What do your fires show?"
"The same, I fear. Only snow."
Snow. It was snowing heavily to the south, Jon knew. Only two days'
ride from here, the kingsroad was said to be impassable. Melisandre knows that too. And to the east, a savage storm was raging on the Bay of Seals. At last report, the ragtag fleet they had assembled to rescue the free folk from Hardhome still huddled at Eastwatch-by-the-Sea, confined to port by the rough seas. "You are seeing cinders dancing in the updraft."
"I am seeing skulls. And you. I see your face every time I look into the flames. The danger that I warned you of grows very close now."
"Daggers in the dark. I know. You will forgive my doubts, my lady. A grey girl on a dying horse, fleeing from a marriage, that was what you said."
"I was not wrong."
"You were not right. Alys is not Arya."
"The vision was a true one. It was my reading that was false. I am as mortal as you, Jon Snow. All mortals err."
"Even lord commanders." Mance Rayder and his spearwives had not returned, and Jon could not help but wonder whether the red woman had lied of a purpose. Is she playing her own game?
"You would do well to keep your wolf beside you, my lord."
"Ghost is seldom far." The direwolf raised his head at the sound of his name. Jon scratched him behind the ears. "But now you must excuse me. Ghost, with me."
Carved from the base of the Wall and closed with heavy wooden doors, the ice cells ranged from small to smaller. Some were big enough to allow a man to pace, others so small that prisoners were forced to sit; the smallest were too cramped to allow even that.
Jon had given his chief captive the largest cell, a pail to shit in, enough furs to keep him from freezing, and a skin of wine. It took the guards some time to open his cell, as ice had formed inside the lock. Rusted hinges screamed like damned souls when Wick Whittlestick yanked the door wide enough for Jon to slip through. A faint fecal odor greeted him, though less overpowering than he'd expected. Even shit froze solid in such bitter cold. Jon Snow could see his own reflection dimly inside the icy walls. In one corner of the cell a heap of furs was piled up almost to the height of a man. "Karstark," said Jon Snow. "Wake up."
The furs stirred. Some had frozen together, and the frost that covered them glittered when they moved. An arm emerged, then a face - brown hair, tangled and matted and streaked with grey, two fierce eyes, a nose, a mouth, a beard. Ice caked the prisoner's mustache, clumps of frozen snot. "Snow."
His breath steamed in the air, fogging the ice behind his head. "You have no right to hold me. The laws of hospitality - "
"You are no guest of mine. You came to the Wall without my leave, armed, to carry off your niece against her will. Lady Alys was given bread and salt. She is a guest. You are a prisoner." Jon let that hang for a moment, then said, "Your niece is wed."
Cregan Karstark's lips skinned back from his teeth. "Alys was promised to me." Though past fifty, he had been a strong man when he went into the cell. The cold had robbed him of that strength and left him stiff and weak. "My lord father - "
"Your father is a castellan, not a lord. And a castellan has no right to make marriage pacts."
"My father, Arnolf, is Lord of Karhold."
"A son comes before an uncle by all the laws I know."
Cregan pushed himself to his feet and kicked aside the furs clinging to his ankles. "Harrion is dead."
Or will be soon. "A daughter comes before an uncle too. If her brother is dead, Karhold belongs to Lady Alys. And she has given her hand in marriage to Sigorn, Magnar of Thenn."
"A wildling. A filthy, murdering wildling." Cregan's hands closed into fists. The gloves that covered them were leather, lined with fur to match the cloak that hung matted and stiff from his broad shoulders. His black wool surcoat was emblazoned with the white sunburst of his house. "I see what you are, Snow. Half a wolf and half a wildling, baseborn get of a traitor and a whore. You would deliver a highborn maid to the bed of some stinking savage. Did you sample her yourself first?" He laughed. "If you mean to kill me, do it and be damned for a kinslayer. Stark and Karstark are one blood."
"My name is Snow." "Bastard. " "Guilty. Of that, at least."
"Let this Magnar come to Karhold. We'll hack off his head and stuff it in a privy, so we can piss into his mouth."
"Sigorn leads two hundred Thenns," Jon pointed out, "and Lady Alys believes Karhold will open its gates to her. Two of your men have already sworn her their service and confirmed all she had to say concerning the plans your father made with Ramsay Snow. You have close kin at Karhold, I am told. A word from you could save their lives. Yield the castle. Lady Alys will pardon the women who betrayed her and allow the men to take the black."
Cregan shook his head. Chunks of ice had formed about the tangles in his hair, and click ed together softly when he moved. "Never," he said.
"Never, never, never."
I should make his head a wedding gift for Lady Alys and her Magnar, Jon thought, but dare not take the risk. The Night's Watch took no part in the quarrels of the realm; some would say he had already given Stannis too much help. Behead this fool, and they will claim I am killing northmen to give their lands to wildlings. Release him, and he will do his best to rip apart all I' ve done with Lady Alys and the Magnar. Jon wondered what his father would do, how his uncle might deal with this. But Eddard Stark was dead, Benjen Stark lost in the frozen wilds beyond the Wall. You know nothing, Jon Snow.