After the riders came the men of the Frozen Shore. Jon watched a dozen of their big bone chariots roll past him one by one, clattering like Rattleshirt. Half still rolled as before; others had replaced their wheels with runners. They slid across the snowdrifts smoothly, where the wheeled chariots were foundering and sinking.
The dogs that drew the chariots were fearsome beasts, as big as direwolves. Their women were clad in sealskins, some with infants at their br**sts. Older children shuffled along behind their mothers and looked up at Jon with eyes as dark and hard as the stones they clutched. Some of the men wore antlers on their hats, and some wore walrus tusks. The two sorts did not love each other, he soon gathered. A few thin reindeer brought up the rear, with the great dogs snapping at the heels of stragglers.
"Be wary o' that lot, Jon Snow," Tormund warned him. "A savage folk. The men are bad, the women worse." He took a skin off his saddle and offered it up to Jon. "Here. This will make them seem less fearsome, might be. And warm you for the night. No, go on, it's yours to keep. Drink deep."
Within was a mead so potent it made Jon's eyes water and sent tendrils of fire snaking through his chest. He drank deep. "You're a good man, Tormund Giantsbabe. For a wildling."
"Better than most, might be. Not so good as some."
On and on the wildlings came, as the sun crept across the bright blue sky. Just before midday, the movement stopped when an oxcart became jammed at a turn inside the tunnel. Jon Snow went to have a look for himself. The cart was now wedged solid. The men behind were threatening to hack it apart and butcher the ox where he stood, whilst the driver and his kin swore to kill them if they tried. With the help of Tormund and his son Toregg, Jon managed to keep the wildlings from coming to blood, but it took the best part of an hour before the way was opened again.
"You need a bigger gate," Tormund complained to Jon with a sour look up at the sky, where a few clouds had blown in. "Too bloody slow this way. Like sucking the Milkwater through a reed. Har. Would that I had the Horn of Joramun. I'd give it a nice toot and we'd climb through the rubble."
"Melisandre burned the Horn of Joramun."
"Did she?" Tormund slapped his thigh and hooted. "She burned that fine big horn, aye. A bloody sin, I call it. A thousand years old, that was. We found it in a giant's grave, and no man o' us had ever seen a horn so big. That must have been why Mance got the notion to tell you it were Joramun's. He wanted you crows to think he had it in his power to blow your bloody Wall down about your knees. But we never found the true horn, not for all our digging. If we had, every kneeler in your Seven Kingdoms would have chunks o' ice to cool his wine all summer."
Jon turned in his saddle, frowning. And Joramun blew the Horn of Winter and woke giants from the earth. That huge horn with its bands of old gold, incised with ancient runes ... had Mance Rayder lied to him, or was Tormund lying now? If Mance' s horn was just a feint, where is the true horn?
By afternoon the sun had gone, and the day turned grey and gusty. "A snow sky," Tormund announced grimly.
Others had seen the same omen in those flat white clouds. It seemed to spur them on to haste. Tempers began to fray. One man was stabbed when he tried to slip in ahead of others who had been hours in the column. Toregg wrenched the knife away from his attacker, dragged both men from the press, and sent them back to the wildling camp to start again.
"Tormund," Jon said, as they watched four old women pull a cartful of children toward the gate, "tell me of our foe. I would know all there is to know of the Others."
The wildling rubbed his mouth. "Not here," he mumbled, "not this side o' your Wall." The old man glanced uneasily toward the trees in their white mantles. "They're never far, you know. They won't come out by day, not when that old sun's shining, but don't think that means they went away. Shadows never go away. Might be you don't see them, but they're always clinging to your heels."
"Did they trouble you on your way south?"
"They never came in force, if that's your meaning, but they were with us all the same, nibbling at our edges. We lost more outriders than I care to think about, and it was worth your life to fall behind or wander off. Every nightfall we'd ring our camps with fire. They don't like fire much, and no mistake. When the snows came, though ... snow and sleet and freezing rain, it's bloody hard to find dry wood or get your kindling lit, and the cold ... some nights our fires just seemed to shrivel up and die. Nights like that, you always find some dead come the morning. '
Less they find you
first. The night that Torwynd ... my boy, he ..." Tormund turned his face away.
"I know," said Jon Snow.
Tormund turned back. "You know nothing. You killed a dead man, aye, I heard. Mance killed a hundred. A man can fight the dead, but when their masters come, when the white mists rise up ... how do you fight a mist, crow? Shadows with teeth ... air so cold it hurts to breathe, like a knife inside your chest ... you do not know, you cannot know ... can your sword cut cold?"
We will see, Jon thought, remembering the things that Sam had told him, the things he'd found in his old books. Longclaw had been forged in the fires of old Valyria, forged in dragonflame and set with spells. Dragon-steel, Sam called it. Stronger than any common steel, lighter, harder, sharper ... But words in a book were one thing. The true test came in battle.
"You are not wrong," Jon said. "I do not know. And if the gods are good, I never will."
"The gods are seldom good, Jon Snow." Tormund nodded toward the sky. "The clouds roll in. Already it grows darker, colder. Your Wall no longer weeps. Look." He turned and called out to his son Toregg. "Ride back to the camp and get them moving. The sick ones and the weak ones, the slugabeds and cravens, get them on their bloody feet. Set their bloody tents afire if you must. The gate must close at nightfall. Any man not through the Wall by then had best pray the Others get to him afore I do. You hear?"
"I hear." Toregg put his heels into his horse and galloped back down the column.
On and on the wildlings came. The day grew darker, just as Tormund said. Clouds covered the sky from horizon to horizon, and warmth fled. There was more shoving at the gate, as men and goats and bullocks jostled each other out of the way. It is more than impatience, Jon realized. They are afraid. Warriors, spearwives, raiders, they are frightened of those woods, of shadows moving through the trees. They want to put the Wall between them before the night descends.
A snowflake danced upon the air. Then another. Dance with me, Jon Snow, he thought. You' ll dance with me anon. On and on and on the wildlings came. Some were moving faster now, hastening across the battleground. Others - the old, the young, the feeble - could scarce move at all. This morning the field had been covered with a thick blanket of old snow, its white crust shining in the sun. Now the field was brown and black and slimy. The passage of the free folk had turned the ground to mud and muck: wooden wheels and horses' hooves, runners of bone and horn and iron, pig trotters, heavy boots, the cloven feet of cows and bullocks, the bare black feet of the Hornfoot folk, all had left their marks. The soft footing slowed the column even more. "You need a bigger gate,"
Tormund complained again.
By late afternoon the snow was falling steadily, but the river of wildlings had dwindled to a stream. Columns of smoke rose from the trees where their camp had been. "Toregg," Tormund explained. "Burning the dead. Always some who go to sleep and don't wake up. You find them in their tents, them as have tents, curled up and froze. Toregg knows what to do."
The stream was no more than a trickle by the time Toregg emerged from the wood. With him rode a dozen mounted warriors armed with spears and swords. "My rear guard," Tormund said, with a gap-toothed smile.
"You crows have rangers. So do we. Them I left in camp in case we were attacked before we all got out."
"Your best men."
"Or my worst. Every man o' them has killed a crow."
Amongst the riders came one man afoot, with some big beast trotting at his heels. A boar, Jon saw. A monstrous boar. Twice the size of Ghost, the creature was covered with coarse black hair, with tusks as long as a man's arm. Jon had never seen a boar so huge or ugly. The man beside him was no beauty either; hulking, black-browed, he had a flat nose, heavy jowls dark with stubble, small black close-set eyes.
"Borroq." Tormund turned his head and spat. "A skinchanger." It was not a question. Somehow he knew.
Ghost turned his head. The falling snow had masked the boar's scent, but now the white wolf had the smell. He padded out in front of Jon, his teeth bared in a silent snarl.
"No! " Jon snapped. "Ghost, down. Stay. Stay! "
"Boars and wolves," said Tormund. "Best keep that beast o' yours locked up tonight. I'll see that Borroq does the same with his pig." He glanced up at the darkening sky. "Them's the last, and none too soon. It'
s going to snow all night, I feel it. Time I had a look at what's on t'other side of all that ice."
"You go ahead," Jon told him. "I mean to be the last one through the ice. I will join you at the feast."
"Feast? Har! Now that's a word I like to hear." The wildling turned his garron toward the Wall and slapped her on the rump. Toregg and the riders followed, dismounting by the gate to lead their horses through. Bowen Marsh stayed long enough to supervise as his stewards pulled the last carts into the tunnel. Only Jon Snow and his guards were left.
The skinchanger stopped ten yards away. His monster pawed at the mud, snuffling. A light powdering of snow covered the boar'
s humped black
back. He gave a snort and lowered his head, and for half a heartbeat Jon thought he was about to charge. To either side of him, his men lowered their spears.
"Brother," Borroq said. "You'd best go on. We are about to close the gate."
"You do that," Borroq said. "You close it good and tight. They'
re coming, crow." He smiled as ugly a smile as Jon had ever seen and made his way to the gate. The boar stalked after him. The falling snow covered up their tracks behind them.
"That's done, then," Rory said when they were gone.
No, thought Jon Snow, it has only just begun. Bowen Marsh was waiting for him south of the Wall, with a tablet full of numbers. "Three thousand one hundred and nineteen wildlings passed through the gate today," the Lord Steward told him. "Sixty of your hostages were sent off to Eastwatch and the Shadow Tower after they'd been fed. Edd Tollett took six wagons of women back to Long Barrow. The rest remain with us."
"Not for long," Jon promised him. "Tormund means to lead his own folk to Oakenshield within a day or two. The rest will follow, as soon as we sort where to put them."
"As you say, Lord Snow." The words were stiff. The tone suggested that Bowen Marsh knew where he would put them.
The castle Jon returned to was far different from the one he'd left that morning. For as long as he had known it, Castle Black had been a place of silence and shadows, where a meagre company of men in black moved like ghosts amongst the ruins of a fortress that had once housed ten times their numbers. All that had changed. Lights now shone through windows where Jon Snow had never seen lights shine before. Strange voices echoed down the yards, and free folk were coming and going along icy paths that had only known the black boots of crows for years. Outside the old Flint Barracks, he came across a dozen men pelting one another with snow. Playing, Jon thought in astonishment, grown men playing like children, throwing snowballs the way Bran and Arya once did, and Robb and me before them. Donal Noye's old armory was still dark and silent, however, and Jon'