"Har! " Tormund called. "Guards, is it? Now where's the trust in that, crow?"
"You brought more men than I did."
"So I did. Come here by me, lad. I want my folk to see you. I got thousands ne'er saw a lord commander, grown men who were told as boys that your rangers would eat them if they didn't behave. They need to see you plain, a long-faced lad in an old black cloak. They need to learn that the Night's Watch is naught t'be feared."
That is a lesson I would sooner they never learned. Jon peeled the glove off his burned hand, put two fingers in his mouth, and whistled. Ghost came racing from the gate. Tormund's horse shied so hard that the wild-ling almost lost his saddle. "Naught to be feared?" Jon said. "Ghost, stay."
"You are a black-hearted bastard, Lord Crow." Tormund
Horn-Blower lifted his own warhorn to his lips. The sound of it echoed off the ice like rolling thunder, and the first of the free folk began to stream toward the gate.
From dawn till dusk Jon watched the wildlings pass.
The hostages went first - one hundred boys between the ages of eight and sixteen. "Your blood price, Lord Crow," Tormund declared. "I hope the wailing o' their poor mothers don't haunt your dreams at night." Some of the boys were led to the gate by a mother or a father, others by older siblings. More came alone. Fourteenand fifteen-year-old boys were almost men, and did not want to be seen clinging to a woman's skirts. Two stewards counted the boys as they went by, noting each name on long sheepskin scrolls. A third collected their valuables for the toll and wrote that down as well. The boys were going to a place that none had ever been before, to serve an order that had been the enemy of their kith and kin for thousands of years, yet Jon saw no tears, heard no wailing mothers. These are winter' s people, he reminded himself. Tears freeze upon your cheeks where they come from. Not a single hostage balked or tried to slink away when his turn came to enter that gloomy tunnel.
Almost all the boys were thin, some past the point of gauntness, with spindly shanks and arms like twigs. That was no more than Jon expected. Elsewise they came in every shape and size and color. He saw tall boys and short boys, brown-haired boys and black-haired boys, honey blonds and strawberry blonds and redheads kissed by fire, like Ygritte. He saw boys with scars, boys with limps, boys with pockmarked faces. Many of the older boys had downy cheeks or wispy little mustachios, but there was one fellow with a beard as thick as Tormund's. Some dressed in fine soft furs, some in boiled leather and oddments of armor, more in wool and seal-skins, a few in rags. One was naked. Many had weapons: sharpened spears, stone-headed mauls, knives made of bone or stone or dragonglass, spiked clubs, tanglenets, even here and there a rust-eaten old sword. The Hornfoot boys walked blithe and barefoot through the snowdrifts. Other lads had bear-paws on their boots and walked on top of the same drifts, never sinking through the crust. Six boys arrived on horses, two on mules. A pair of brothers turned up with a goat. The biggest hostage was six-and-a-half feet tall but had a baby's face; the smallest was a runty boy who claimed nine years but looked no more than six.
Of special note were the sons of men of renown. Tormund took care to point them out as they went by. "The boy there is the son of Soren Shieldbreaker," he said of one tall lad. "Him with the red hair, he's Gerrick Kingsblood'
s get. Comes o'
the line o'
Raymun Redbeard, to hear
him tell it. The line o' Redbeard's little brother, you want it true." Two boys looked enough alike to be twins, but Tormund insisted they were cousins, born a year apart. "One was sired by Harle the Huntsman, t'other by Harle the Handsome, both on the same woman. Fathers hate each other. I was you, I'd send one to Eastwatch and t'other to your Shadow Tower."
Other hostages were named as sons of Howd Wanderer, of Brogg, of Devyn Sealskinner, Kyleg of the Wooden Ear, Morna White Mask, the Great Walrus ...
"The Great Walrus? Truly?"
"They have queer names along the Frozen Shore."
Three hostages were sons of Alfyn Crowkiller, an infamous raider slain by Qhorin Halfhand. Or so Tormund insisted. "They do not look like brothers," Jon observed.
"Half-brothers, born o' different mothers. Alfyn's member was a wee thing, even smaller than yours, but he was never shy with where he stuck it. Had a son in every village, that one."
Of a certain runty rat-faced boy, Tormund said, "That one's a whelp of Varamyr Sixskins. You remember Varamyr, Lord Crow?"
He did. "The skinchanger."
"Aye, he was that. A vicious little runt besides. Dead now, like as not. No one's seen him since the battle."
Two of the boys were girls in disguise. When Jon saw them, he dispatched Rory and Big Liddle to bring them to him. One came meekly enough, the other kicking and biting. This could end badly. "Do these two have famous fathers?"
"Har! Them skinny things? Not likely. Picked by lot."
"Are they?" Tormund squinted at the pair of them from his saddle.
"Me and Lord Crow made a wager on which o' you has the biggest member. Pull them breeches down, give us a look."
One of the girls turned red. The other glared defiantly. "You leave us alone, Tormund Giantstink. You let us go."
"Har! You win, crow. Not a c**k between 'em. The little one's got her a set o' balls, though. A spearwife in the making, her." He called to his own men. "Go find them something girly to put on before Lord Snow wets his smallclothes."
"I'll need two boys to take their places."
"How's that?" Tormund scratched his beard. "A hostage is a hostage, seems to me. That big sharp sword o'
yours can snick a girl'
off as easy as a boy's. A father loves his daughters too. Well, most fathers."
It is not their fathers who concern me. "Did Mance ever sing of Brave Danny Flint?"
"Not as I recall. Who was he?"
"A girl who dressed up like a boy to take the black. Her song is sad and pretty. What happened to her wasn't." In some versions of the song, her ghost still walked the Nightfort. "I'll send the girls to Long Barrow."
The only men there were Iron Emmett and Dolorous Edd, both of whom he trusted. That was not something he could say of all his brothers. The wildling understood. "Nasty birds, you crows." He spat. "Two more boys, then. You'll have them."
When nine-and-ninety hostages had shuffled by them to pass beneath the Wall, Tormund Giantsbane produced the last one. "My son Dryn. You'
ll see he's well taken care of, crow, or I'll cook your black liver up and eat it."
Jon gave the boy a close inspection. Bran' s age, or the age he would have been if Theon had not killed him. Dryn had none of Bran's sweetness, though. He was a chunky boy, with short legs, thick arms, and a wide red face - a miniature version of his father, with a shock of dark brown hair.
"He'll serve as my own page," Jon promised Tormund.
"Hear that, Dryn? See that you don't get above yourself." To Jon he said, "He'll need a good beating from time to time. Be careful o' his teeth, though. He bites." He reached down for his horn again, raised it, and blew another blast.
This time it was warriors who came forward. And not just one hundred of them. Five hundred, Jon Snow judged, as they moved out from beneath the trees, perhaps as many as a thousand. One in every ten of them came mounted but all of them came armed. Across their backs they bore round wicker shields covered with hides and boiled leather, displaying painted images of snakes and spiders, severed heads, bloody hammers, broken skulls, and demons. A few were clad in stolen steel, dinted oddments of armor looted from the corpses of fallen rangers. Others had armored themselves in bones, like Rattleshirt. All wore fur and leather. There were spearwives with them, long hair streaming. Jon could not look at them without remembering Ygritte: the gleam of fire in her hair, the look on her face when she'd disrobed for him in the grotto, the sound of her voice. "You know nothing, Jon Snow," she'd told him a hundred times. It is as true now as it was then. "You might have sent the women first," he said to Tormund. "The mothers and the maids."
The wildling gave him a shrewd look. "Aye, I might have. And you crows might decide to close that gate. A few fighters on t'other side, well, that way the gate stays open, don't it?" He grinned. "I bought your bloody horse, Jon Snow. Don't mean that we can't count his teeth. Now don't you go thinking me and mine don't trust you. We trust you just as much as you trust us." He snorted. "You wanted warriors, didn't you? Well, there they are. Every one worth six o' your black crows."
Jon had to smile. "So long as they save those weapons for our common foe, I am content."
"Gave you my word on it, didn't I? The word of Tormund
Giantsbane. Strong as iron, 'tis." He turned and spat.
Amongst the stream of warriors were the fathers of many of Jon's hostages. Some stared with cold dead eyes as they went by, fingering their sword hilts. Others smiled at him like long-lost kin, though a few of those smiles discomfited Jon Snow more than any glare. None knelt, but many gave him their oaths. "What Tormund swore, I swear," declared black-haired Brogg, a man of few words. Soren Shieldbreaker bowed his head an inch and growled, "Soren's axe is yours, Jon Snow, if ever you have need of such." Red-bearded Gerrick Kingsblood brought three daughters. "They will make fine wives, and give their husbands strong sons of royal blood," he boasted. "Like their father, they are descended from Raymun Redbeard, who was King-Beyond-the-Wall."
Blood meant little and less amongst the free folk, Jon knew. Ygritte had taught him that. Gerrick's daughters shared her same flame-red hair, though hers had been a tangle of curls and theirs hung long and straight. Kissed by fire. "Three princesses, each lovelier than the last," he told their father. "I will see that they are presented to the queen." Selyse Baratheon would take to these three better than she had to Val, he suspected; they were younger and considerably more cowed. Sweet enough to look at them, though their father seems a fool.
Howd Wanderer swore his oath upon his sword, as nicked and pitted a piece of iron as Jon had ever seen. Devyn Sealskinner presented him with a sealskin hat, Harle the Huntsman with a bear-claw necklace. The warrior witch Morna removed her weirwood mask just long enough to kiss his gloved hand and swear to be his man or his woman, whichever he preferred. And on and on and on.
As they passed, each warrior stripped off his treasures and tossed them into one of the carts that the stewards had placed before the gate. Amber pendants, golden torques, jeweled daggers, silver brooches set with gem-stones, bracelets, rings, niello cups and golden goblets, warhorns and drinking horns, a green jade comb, a necklace of freshwater pearls ... all yielded up and noted down by Bowen Marsh. One man surrendered a shirt of silver scales that had surely been made for some great lord. Another produced a broken sword with three sapphires in the hilt.
And there were queerer things: a toy mammoth made of actual mammoth hair, an ivory phallus, a helm made from a unicorn's head, complete with horn. How much food such things would buy in the Free Cities, Jon Snow could not begin to say.