"Never is a long time," Jon said. "You may feel differently on the morrow, or a year from now. Soon or late King Stannis will return to the Wall, however. When he does he will have you put to death ... unless it happens that you are wearing a black cloak. When a man takes the black, his crimes are wiped away." Even such a man as you. "Now pray excuse me. I have a feast to attend."
After the biting cold of the ice cells, the crowded cellar was so hot that Jon felt suffocated from the moment he came down the steps. The air smelled of smoke and roasting meat and mulled wine. Axell Florent was making a toast as Jon took his place upon the dais. "To King Stannis and his wife, Queen Selyse, Light of the North!" Ser Axell bellowed. "To R'
hllor, the Lord of Light, may he defend us all! One land, one god, one king!"
"One land, one god, one king! " the queen's men echoed. Jon drank with the rest. Whether Alys Karstark would find any joy in her marriage he could not say, but this one night at least should be one of celebration.
The stewards began to bring out the first dish, an onion broth flavored with bits of goat and carrot. Not precisely royal fare, but nourishing; it tasted good enough and warmed the belly. Owen the Oaf took up his fiddle, and several of the free folk joined in with pipes and drums. The same pipes and drums they played to sound Mance Rayder' s attack upon the Wall. Jon thought they sounded sweeter now. With the broth came loaves of coarse brown bread, warm from the oven. Salt and butter sat upon the tables. The sight made Jon gloomy. They were well provided with salt, Bowen Marsh had told him, but the last of the butter would be gone within a moon's turn. Old Flint and The Norrey had been given places of high honor just below the dais. Both men had been too old to march with Stannis; they had sent their sons and grandsons in their stead. But they had been quick enough to descend on Castle Black for the wedding. Each had brought a wet nurse to the Wall as well. The Norrey woman was forty, with the biggest br**sts Jon Snow had ever seen. The Flint girl was fourteen and flat-chested as a boy, though she did not lack for milk. Between the two of them, the child Val called Monster seemed to be thriving.
For that much Jon was grateful ... but he did not believe for a moment that two such hoary old warriors would have hied down from their hills for that alone. Each had brought a tail of fighting men - five for Old Flint, twelve for The Norrey, all clad in ragged skins and studded leathers, fearsome as the face of winter. Some had long beards, some had scars, some had both; all worshiped the old gods of the north, those same gods worshiped by the free folk beyond the Wall. Yet here they sat, drinking to a marriage hallowed by some queer red god from beyond the seas. Better that than refuse to drink. Neither Flint nor Norrey had turned their cups over to spill their wine upon the floor. That might betoken a certain acceptance. Or perhaps they just hate to waste good southron wine. They will not have tasted much of it up in those stony hills of theirs. Between courses, Ser Axell Florent led Queen Selyse out onto the floor to dance. Others followed - the queen's knights first, partnered with her ladies. Ser Brus gave Princess Shireen her first dance, then took a turn with her mother. Ser Narbert danced with each of Selyse's lady companions in turn.
The queen's men outnumbered the queen's ladies three to one, so even the humblest serving girls were pressed into the dance. After a few songs some black brothers remembered skills learned at the courts and castles of their youth, before their sins had sent them to the Wall, and took the floor as well. That old rogue Ulmer of the Kingswood proved as adept at dancing as he was at archery, no doubt regaling his partners with his tales of the Kingswood Brotherhood, when he rode with Simon Toyne and Big Belly Ben and helped Wenda the White Fawn burn her mark in the bu**ocks of her highborn captives. Satin was all grace, dancing with three serving girls in turn but never presuming to approach a highborn lady. Jon judged that wise. He did not like the way some of the queen's knights were looking at the steward, particularly Ser Patrek of King's Mountain. That one wants to shed a bit of blood, he thought. He is looking for some provocation. When Owen the Oaf began to dance with Patchface the fool, laughter echoed off the vaulted ceiling. The sight made Lady Alys smile. "Do you dance often, here at Castle Black?"
"Every time we have a wedding, my lady."
"You could dance with me, you know. It would be only courteous. You danced with me anon."
"Anon?" teased Jon. "When we were children." She tore off a bit of bread and threw it at him. "As you know well."
"My lady should dance with her husband."
"My Magnar is not one for dancing, I fear. If you will not dance with me, at least pour me some of the mulled wine."
"As you command." He signaled for a flagon. "So," said Alys, as Jon poured, "I am now a woman wed. A wildling husband with his own little wildling army."
"Free folk is what they call themselves. Most, at least. The Thenns are a people apart, though. Very old." Ygritte had told him that. You know nothing, Jon Snow. "They come from a hidden vale at the north end of the Frostfangs, surrounded by high peaks, and for thousands of years they've had more truck with the giants than with other men. It made them different."
"Different," she said, "but more like us."
"Aye, my lady. The Thenns have lords and laws." They know how to kneel. "They mine tin and copper for bronze, forge their own arms and armor instead of stealing it. A proud folk, and brave. Mance Rayder had to best the old Magnar thrice before Styr would accept him as King-Beyond-the-Wall."
"And now they are here, on our side of the Wall. Driven from their mountain fastness and into my bedchamber." She smiled a wry smile. "It is my own fault. My lord father told me I must charm your brother Robb, but I was only six and didn't know how."
Aye, but now you' re almost six-and-ten, and we must pray you will know how to charm your new husband. "My lady, how do things stand at Karhold with your food stores?"
"Not well." Alys sighed. "My father took so many of our men south with him that only the women and young boys were left to bring the harvest in. Them, and the men too old or crippled to go off to war. Crops withered in the fields or were pounded into the mud by autumn rains. And now the snows are come. This winter will be hard. Few of the old people will survive it, and many children will perish as well."
It was a tale that any northmen knew well. "My father'
was a Flint of the mountains, on his mother's side," Jon told her. "The First Flints, they call themselves. They say the other Flints are the blood of younger sons, who had to leave the mountains to find food and land and wives. It has always been a harsh life up there. When the snows fall and food grows scarce, their young must travel to the winter town or take service at one castle or the other. The old men gather up what strength remains in them and announce that they are going hunting. Some are found come spring. More are never seen again."
"It is much the same at Karhold."
That did not surprise him. "When your stores begin to dwindle, my lady, remember us. Send your old men to the Wall, let them say our words. Here at least they will not die alone in the snow, with only memories to warm them. Send us boys as well, if you have boys to spare."
"As you say." She touched his hand. "Karhold remembers."
The elk was being carved. It smelled better than Jon had any reason to expect. He dispatched a portion to Leathers out at Hardin's Tower, along with three big platters of roast vegetables for Wun Wun, then ate a healthy slice himself. Three-Finger Hobb' s acquitted himself well. That had been a concern. Hobb had come to him two nights ago complaining that he'd joined the Night's Watch to kill wildlings, not to cook for them. "Besides, I never done no wedding feast, m'lord. Black brothers don't never take no wifes. It's in the bloody vows, I swear 'tis."
Jon was washing the roast down with a sip of mulled wine when Clydas appeared at his elbow. "A bird," he announced, and slipped a parchment into Jon's hand. The note was sealed with a dot of hard black wax. Eastwatch, Jon knew, even before he broke the seal. The letter had been written by Maester Harmune; Cotter Pyke could neither read nor write. But the words were Pyke's, set down as he had spoken them, blunt and to the point.
Calm seas today. Eleven ships set sail for Hardhome on the morning tide. Three Braavosi, four Lyseni, four of ours. Two of the Lyseni barely seaworthy. We may drown more wildlings than we save. Your command. Twenty ravens aboard, and Maester Harmune. Will send reports. I command from Talon, Tattersalt second on Blackbird, Ser Glendon holds Eastwatch.
"Dark wings, dark words?" asked Alys Karstark.
"No, my lady. This news was long awaited." Though the last part troubles me. Glendon Hewett was a seasoned man and a strong one, a sensible choice to command in Cotter Pyke's absence. But he was also as much a friend as Alliser Thorne could boast, and a crony of sorts with Janos Slynt, however briefly. Jon could still recall how Hewett had dragged him from his bed, and the feel of his boot slamming into his ribs. Not the man I would have chosen. He rolled the parchment up and slipped it into his belt. The fish course was next, but as the pike was being boned Lady Alys dragged the Magnar up onto the floor. From the way he moved it was plain that Sigorn had never danced before, but he had drunk enough mulled wine so that it did not seem to matter.
"A northern maid and a wildling warrior, bound together by the Lord of Light." Ser Axell Florent slipped into Lady Alys's vacant seat. "Her Grace approves. I am close to her, my lord, so I know her mind. King Stannis will approve as well."
Unless Roose Bolton has stuck his head on a spear. "Not all agree, alas." Ser Axell's beard was a ragged brush beneath his sagging chin; coarse hair sprouted from his ears and nostrils. "Ser Patrek feels he would have made a better match for Lady Alys. His lands were lost to him when he came north."
"There are many in this hall who have lost far more than that," said Jon, "and more who have given up their lives in service to the realm. Ser Patrek should count himself fortunate."
Axell Florent smiled. "The king might say the same if he were here. Yet some provision must be made for His Grace's leal knights, surely? They have followed him so far and at such cost. And we must needs bind these wildlings to king and realm. This marriage is a good first step, but I know that it would please the queen to see the wildling princess wed as well."
Jon sighed. He was weary of explaining that Val was no true princess. No matter how often he told them, they never seemed to hear. "You are persistent, Ser Axell, I grant you that."
"Do you blame me, my lord? Such a prize is not easily won. A nubile girl, I hear, and not hard to look upon. Good hips, good br**sts, well made for whelping children."
"Who would father these children? Ser Patrek? You?"
"Who better? We Florents have the blood of the old Gardener kings in our veins. Lady Melisandre could perform the rites, as she did for Lady Alys and the Magnar."
"All you are lacking is a bride."
"Easily remedied." Florent's smile was so false that it looked painful. "Where is she, Lord Snow? Have you moved her to one of your other castles? Greyguard or the Shadow Tower? Whore's Burrow, with t'