"I see you have considered all this carefully, Lord Snow. I am sure King Stannis will be pleased when he returns triumphant from his battle."
Assuming he returns at all. "Of course," the queen went on, "the wildlings must first acknowledge Stannis as their king and R'hllor as their god."
And here we are, face-to-face in the narrow passage. "Your Grace, forgive me. Those were not the terms that we agreed to."
The queen's face hardened. "A grievous oversight." What faint traces of warmth her voice had held vanished all at once.
"Free folk do not kneel," Val told her. "Then they must be knelt,"
the queen declared. "Do that, Your Grace, and we will rise again at the first chance," Val promised. "Rise with blades in hand."
The queen's lips tightened, and her chin gave a small quiver. "You are insolent. I suppose that is only to be expected of a wildling. We must find you a husband who can teach you courtesy." The queen turned her glare on Jon. "I do not approve, Lord Commander. Nor will my lord husband. I cannot prevent you from opening your gate, as we both know full well, but I promise you that you shall answer for it when the king returns from battle. Mayhaps you might want to reconsider."
"Your Grace." Jon knelt again. This time Val did not join him. "I am sorry my actions have displeased you. I did as I thought best. Do I have your leave to go?"
"You do. At once."
Once outside and well away from the queen's men, Val gave vent to her wroth. "You lied about her beard. That one has more hair on her chin than I have between my legs. And the daughter ... her face ..."
"The grey death is what we call it."
"It is not always mortal in children."
"North of the Wall it is. Hemlock is a sure cure, but a pillow or a blade will work as well. If I had given birth to that poor child, I would have given her the gift of mercy long ago."
This was a Val that Jon had never seen before. "Princess Shireen is the queen's only child."
"I pity both of them. The child is not clean."
"If Stannis wins his war, Shireen will stand as heir to the Iron Throne."
"Then I pity your Seven Kingdoms."
"The maesters say greyscale is not - "
"The maesters may believe what they wish. Ask a woods witch if you would know the truth. The grey death sleeps, only to wake again. The child is not clean! "
"She seems a sweet girl. You cannot know - "
"I can. You know nothing, Jon Snow." Val seized his arm. "I want the monster out of there. Him and his wet nurses. You cannot leave them in that same tower as the dead girl."
Jon shook her hand away. "She is not dead. " "She is. Her mother cannot see it. Nor you, it seems. Yet death is there." She walked away from him, stopped, turned back. "I brought you Tormund Giantsbane. Bring me my monster."
"If I can, I will."
"Do. You owe me a debt, Jon Snow."
Jon watched her stride away. She is wrong. She must be wrong. Greyscale is not so deadly as she claims, not in children. Ghost was gone again. The sun was low in the west. A cup of hot spiced wine would serve me well just now. Two cups would serve me even better. But that would have to wait. He had foes to face. Foes of the worst sort: brothers.
He found Leathers waiting for him by the winch cage. The two of them rode up together. The higher they went, the stronger the wind. Fifty feet up, the heavy cage began to sway with every gust. From time to time it scraped against the Wall, starting small crystalline showers of ice that sparkled in the sunlight as they fell. They rose above the tallest towers of the castle. At four hundred feet the wind had teeth, and tore at his black cloak so it slapped noisily at the iron bars. At seven hundred it cut right through him. The Wall is mine, Jon reminded himself as the winchmen were swinging in the cage, for two more days, at least.
Jon hopped down onto the ice, thanked the men on the winch, and nodded to the spearmen standing sentry. Both wore woolen hoods pulled down over their heads, so nothing could be seen of their faces but their eyes, but he knew Ty by the tangled rope of greasy black hair falling down his back and Owen by the sausage stuffed into the scabbard at his hip. He might have known them anyway, just by the way they stood. A good lord must know his men, his father had once told him and Robb, back at Winterfell. Jon walked to the edge of the Wall and gazed down upon the killing ground where Mance Rayder's host had died. He wondered where Mance was now. Did he ever find you, little sister? Or were you just a ploy he used so I would set him free?
It had been so long since he had last seen Arya. What would she look like now? Would he even know her? Arya Underfoot. Her face was always dirty. Would she still have that little sword he'd had Mikken forge for her?
Stick them with the pointy end, he'd told her. Wisdom for her wedding night if half of what he heard of Ramsay Snow was true. Bring her home, Mance. I saved your son from Melisandre, and now I am about to save four thousand of your free folk. You owe me this one little girl. In the haunted forest to the north, the shadows of the afternoon crept through the trees. The western sky was a blaze of red, but to the east the first stars were peeking out. Jon Snow flexed the fingers of his sword hand, remembering all he'd lost. Sam, you sweet fat fool, you played me a cruel jape when you made me lord commander. A lord commander has no friends.
"Lord Snow?" said Leathers. "The cage is coming up."
"I hear it." Jon moved back from the edge.
First to make the ascent were the clan chiefs Flint and Norrey, clad in fur and iron. The Norrey looked like some old fox - wrinkled and slight of build, but sly-eyed and spry. Torghen Flint was half a head shorter but must weigh twice as much - a stout gruff man with gnarled, red-knuckled hands as big as hams, leaning heavily on a blackthorn cane as he limped across the ice. Bowen Marsh came next, bundled up in a bearskin. After him Othell Yarwyck. Then Septon Cellador, half in his cups.
"Walk with me," Jon told them. They walked west along the Wall, down gravel-strewn paths toward the setting sun. When they had come fifty yards from the warming shed, he said, "You know why I'
ve summoned you.
Three days hence at dawn the gate will open, to allow Tormund and his people through the Wall. There is much we need to do in preparation."
Silence greeted his pronouncement. Then Othell Yarwyck said,
"Lord Commander, there are thousands of - "
" - scrawny wildlings, bone weary, hungry, far from home." Jon pointed at the lights of their campfires. "There they are. Four thousand, Tormund claims."
"Three thousand, I make them, by the fires." Bowen Marsh lived for counts and measures. "More than twice that number at Hardhome with the woods witch, we are told. And Ser Denys writes of great camps in the mountains beyond the Shadow Tower ..."
Jon did not deny it. "Tormund says the Weeper means to try the Bridge of Skulls again."
The Old Pomegranate touched his scar. He had gotten it defending the Bridge of Skulls the last time the Weeping Man had tried to cut his way across the Gorge. "Surely the lord commander cannot mean to allow that ... that demon through as well?"
"Not gladly." Jon had not forgotten the heads the Weeping Man had left him, with bloody holes where their eyes had been. Black Jack Bulwer, Hairy Hal, Garth Greyfeather. I cannot avenge them, but I will not forget their names. "But yes, my lord, him as well. We cannot pick and choose amongst the free folk, saying this one may pass, this one may not. Peace means peace for all."
The Norrey hawked and spat. "As well make peace with wolves and carrion crows."
"It's peaceful in my dungeons," grumbled Old Flint. "Give the Weeping Man to me."
"How many rangers has the Weeper killed?" asked Othell Yarwyck.
"How many women has he raped or killed or stolen?"
"Three of mine own ilk," said Old Flint. "And he blinds the girls he does not take."
"When a man takes the black, his crimes are forgiven," Jon reminded them. "If we want the free folk to fight beside us, we must pardon their past crimes as we would for our own."
"The Weeper will not say the words," insisted Yarwyck. "He will not wear the cloak. Even other raiders do not trust him."
"You need not trust a man to use him." Else how could I make use of all of you? "We need the Weeper, and others like him. Who knows the wild better than a wildling? Who knows our foes better than a man who has fought them?"
"All the Weeper knows is rape and murder," said Yarwyck.
"Once past the Wall, the wildlings will have thrice our numbers,"
said Bowen Marsh. "And that is only Tormund's band. Add the Weeper'
s men and those at Hardhome, and they will have the strength to end the Night's Watch in a single night."
"Numbers alone do not win a war. You have not seen them. Half of them are dead on their feet."
"I would sooner have them dead in the ground," said Yarwyck. "If it please my lord."
"It does not please me." Jon's voice was as cold as the wind snapping at their cloaks. "There are children in that camp, hundreds of them, thousands. Women as well."
"Some. Along with mothers and grandmothers, widows and
maids ... would you condemn them all to die, my lord?"
"Brothers should not squabble," Septon Cellador said. "Let us kneel and pray to the Crone to light our way to wisdom."
"Lord Snow," said The Norrey, "where do you mean to put these wild-lings o' yours? Not on my lands, I hope."
"Aye," declared Old Flint. "You want them in the Gift, that's your folly, but see they don't wander off or I'll send you back their heads. Winter is nigh, I want no more mouths to feed."
"The wildlings will remain upon the Wall," Jon assured them.
"Most will be housed in one of our abandoned castles." The Watch now had garrisons at Icemark, Long Barrow, Sable Hall, Greyguard, and Deep Lake, all badly undermanned, but ten castles still stood empty and abandoned. "Men with wives and children, all orphan girls and any orphan boys below the age of ten, old women, widowed mothers, any woman who does not care to fight. The spearwives we'll send to Long Barrow to join their sisters, single men to the other forts we've reopened. Those who take the black will remain here, or be posted to Eastwatch or the Shadow Tower. Tormund will take Oakenshield as his seat, to keep him close at hand."
Bowen Marsh sighed. "If they do not slay us with their swords, they will do so with their mouths. Pray, how does the lord commander propose to feed Tormund and his thousands?"
Jon had anticipated that question. "Through Eastwatch. We will bring in food by ship, as much as might be required. From the riverlands and the stormlands and the Vale of Arryn, from Dorne and the Reach, across the narrow sea from the Free Cities."
"And this food will be paid for ... how, if I may ask?"
With gold, from the Iron Bank of Braavos, Jon might have replied. Instead he said, "I have agreed that the free folk may keep their furs and pelts. They will need those for warmth when winter comes. All other wealth they must surrender. Gold and silver, amber, gemstones, carvings, anything of value. We will ship it all across the narrow sea to be sold in the Free Cities."