"All the wealth o' the wildlings," said The Norrey. "That should buy you a bushel o' barleycorn. Two bushels, might be."
"Lord Commander, why not demand that the wildlings give up their arms as well?" asked Clydas.
Leathers laughed at that. "You want the free folk to fight beside you against the common foe. How are we to do that without arms? Would you have us throw snowballs at the wights? Or will you give us sticks to hit them with?"
The arms most wildlings carry are little more than sticks, thought Jon. Wooden clubs, stone axes, mauls, spears with fire-hardened points, knives of bone and stone and dragonglass, wicker shields, bone armor, boiled leather. The Thenns worked bronze, and raiders like the Weeper carried stolen steel and iron swords looted off some corpse ... but even those were oft of ancient vintage, dinted from years of hard use and spotted with rust.
"Tormund Giantsbane will never willingly disarm his people," Jon said. "He is not the Weeping Man, but he is no craven either. If I had asked that of him, it would have come to blood."
The Norrey fingered his beard. "You may put your wildlings in these ruined forts, Lord Snow, but how will you make them stay? What is there to stop them moving south to fairer, warmer lands?"
"Our lands," said Old Flint. "Tormund has given me his oath. He will serve with us until the spring. The Weeper and their other captains will swear the same or we will not let them pass."
Old Flint shook his head. "They will betray us."
"The Weeper's word is worthless," said Othell Yarwyck. "These are godless savages," said Septon Cellador. "Even in the south the treachery of wildlings is renowned."
Leathers crossed his arms. "That battle down below? I was on t'
side, remember? Now I wear your blacks and train your boys to kill. Some might call me turncloak. Might be so ... but I am no more savage than you crows. We have gods too. The same gods they keep in Winterfell."
"The gods of the North, since before this Wall was raised," said Jon.
"Those are the gods that Tormund swore by. He will keep his word. I know him, as I knew Mance Rayder. I marched with them for a time, you may recall."
"I had not forgotten," said the Lord Steward.
No, thought Jon, I did not think you had. "Mance Rayder swore an oath as well," Marsh went on. "He vowed to wear no crowns, take no wife, father no sons. Then he turned his cloak, did all those things, and led a fearsome host against the realm. It is the remnants of that host that waits beyond the Wall."
"A broken sword can be reforged. A broken sword can kill."
"The free folk have neither laws nor lords," Jon said, "but they love their children. Will you admit that much?"
"It is not their children who concern us. We fear the fathers, not the sons."
"As do I. So I insisted upon hostages." I am not the trusting fool you take me for ... nor am I half wildling, no matter what you believe. "One hundred boys between the ages of eight and sixteen. A son from each of their chiefs and captains, the rest chosen by lot. The boys will serve as pages and squires, freeing our own men for other duties. Some may choose to take the black one day. Queerer things have happened. The rest will stand hostage for the loyalty of their sires."
The northmen glanced at one another. "Hostages," mused The Norrey. "Tormund has agreed to this?"
It was that, or watch his people die. "My blood price, he called it,"
said Jon Snow, "but he will pay."
"Aye, and why not?" Old Flint stomped his cane against the ice.
"Wards, we always called them, when Winterfell demanded boys of us, but they were hostages, and none the worse for it."
"None but them whose sires displeased the Kings o' Winter," said The Norrey. "Those came home shorter by a head. So you tell me, boy ...
if these wildling friends o' yours prove false, do you have the belly to do what needs be done?"
Ask Janos Slynt. "Tormund Giantsbane knows better than to try me. I may seem a green boy in your eyes, Lord Norrey, but I am still a son of Eddard Stark."
Yet even that did not appease his Lord Steward. "You say these boys will serve as squires. Surely the lord commander does not mean they will be trained at arms?"
Jon's anger flared. "No, my lord, I mean to set them to sewing lacy smallclothes. Of course they shall be trained at arms. They shall also churn butter, hew firewood, muck stables, empty chamber pots, and run messages ... and in between they will be drilled with spear and sword and longbow."
Marsh flushed a deeper shade of red. "The lord commander must pardon my bluntness, but I have no softer way to say this. What you propose is nothing less than treason. For eight thousand years the men of the Night's Watch have stood upon the Wall and fought these wildlings. Now you mean to let them pass, to shelter them in our castles, to feed them and clothe them and teach them how to fight. Lord Snow, must I remind you? You swore an oath. "
"I know what I swore." Jon said the words. "I am the sword in the darkness. I am the watcher on the walls. I am the fire that burns against the cold, the light that brings the dawn, the horn that wakes the sleepers, the shield that guards the realms of men. Were those the same words you said when you took your vows?"
"They were. As the lord commander knows."
"Are you certain that I have not forgotten some? The ones about the king and his laws, and how we must defend every foot of his land and cling to each ruined castle? How does that part go?" Jon waited for an answer. None came. "I am the shield that guards the realms of men. Those are the words. So tell me, my lord - what are these wildlings, if not men?"
Bowen Marsh opened his mouth. No words came out. A flush crept up his neck.
Jon Snow turned away. The last light of the sun had begun to fade. He watched the cracks along the Wall go from red to grey to black, from streaks of fire to rivers of black ice. Down below, Lady Melisandre would be lighting her nightfire and chanting, Lord of Light, defend us, for the night is dark and full of terrors.
"Winter is coming," Jon said at last, breaking the awkward silence,
"and with it the white walkers. The Wall is where we stop them. The Wall was made to stop them ... but the Wall must be manned. This discussion is at an end. We have much to do before the gate is opened. Tormund and his people will need to be fed and clothed and housed. Some are sick and will need nursing. Those will fall to you, Clydas. Save as many as you can."
Clydas blinked his dim pink eyes. "I will do my best, Jon. My lord, I mean."
"We will need every cart and wagon made ready to transport the free folk to their new homes. Othell, you shall see to that."
Yarwyck grimaced. "Aye, Lord Commander."
"Lord Bowen, you shall collect the tolls. The gold and silver, the amber, the torques and armbands and necklaces. Sort it all, count it, see that it reaches Eastwatch safely."
"Yes, Lord Snow," said Bowen Marsh.
And Jon thought, "Ice, " she said, "and daggers in the dark. Blood frozen red and hard, and naked steel. " His sword hand flexed. The wind was rising.
Each night seemed colder than the last.
The cell had neither fireplace nor brazier. The only window was too high to allow her a view and too small to squeeze through, but more than large enough to let in the chill. Cersei had torn up the first shift they gave her, demanding the return of her own clothes, but that only left her naked and shivering. When they brought her another shift, she pulled it down over her head and thanked them, choking upon the words.
The window let in sounds as well. That was the only way the queen had to know what might be happening in the city. The septas who brought her food would tell her nothing.
She hated that. Jaime would be coming for her, but how would she know when he arrived? Cersei only hoped he was not so foolish as to go racing ahead of his army. He would need every sword to deal with the ragged horde of Poor Fellows surrounding the Great Sept. She asked about her twin often, but her gaolers gave no answer. She asked about Ser Loras too. At last report the Knight of Flowers had been dying on Dragonstone of wounds received whilst taking the castle. Let him die, Cersei thought, and let him be quick about it. The boy's death would mean an empty place on the Kingsguard, and that might be her salvation. But the septas were as close-mouthed about Loras Tyrell as they were about Jaime.
Lord Qyburn had been her last and only visitor. Her world had a population of four: herself and her three gaolers, pious and unyielding. Septa Unella was big-boned and mannish, with callused hands and homely, scowling features. Septa Moelle had stiff white hair and small mean eyes perpetually crinkled in suspicion, peering out of a wrinkled face as sharp as the blade of an axe. Septa Scolera was thick-waisted and short, with heavy br**sts, olive skin, and a sour smell to her, like milk on the verge of going bad. They brought her food and water, emptied her chamber pot, and took away her shift for washing every few days, leaving her to huddle naked under her blanket until it was returned to her. Sometimes Scolera would read to her from The Seven-Pointed Star or The Book of Holy Prayer, but elsewise none of them would speak with her or answer any of her questions. She hated and despised all three of them, almost as much as she hated and despised the men who had betrayed her.
False friends, treacherous servants, men who had professed undying love, even her own blood ... all of them had deserted her in her hour of need. Osney Kettleblack, that weakling, had broken beneath the lash, filling the High Sparrow's ears with secrets he should have taken to his grave. His brothers, scum of the streets whom she had raised high, did no more than sit upon their hands. Aurane Waters, her admiral, had fled to sea with the dromonds she had built for him. Orton Merryweather had gone running back to Longtable, taking his wife, Taena, who had been the queen's one true friend in these terrible times. Harys Swyft and Grand Maester Pycelle had abandoned her to captivity and offered the realm to the very men who had conspired against her. Meryn Trant and Boros Blount, the king's sworn protectors, were nowhere to be found. Even her cousin Lancel, who once had claimed to love her, was one of her accusers. Her uncle had refused to help her rule when she would have made him the King's Hand. And Jaime ...
No, that she could not believe, would not believe. Jaime would be here once he knew of her plight. "Come at once, " she had written to him.
"Help me. Save me. I need you now as I have never needed you before. I love you. I love you. I love you. Come at once. " Qyburn had sworn that he would see that her letter reached her twin, off in the riverlands with his army. Qyburn had never returned, however. For all she knew, he might be dead, his head impaled upon a spike above the city Keep's gates. Or perhaps he was languishing in one of the black cells beneath the Red Keep, her letter still unsent. The queen had asked after him a hundred times, but her captors would not speak of him. All she knew for certain was that Jaime had not come.
Not yet, she told herself. But soon. And once he comes the High Sparrow and his bitches will sing a different song.