Satin helped them back into their cloaks. As they walked through the armory, Ghost sniffed at them, his tail upraised and bristling. My brothers. The Night's Watch needed leaders with the wisdom of Maester Aemon, the learning of Samwell Tarly, the courage of Qhorin Halfhand, the stubborn strength of the Old Bear, the compassion of Donal Noye. What it had instead was them.
The snow was falling heavily outside. "Wind's from the south,"
Yarwyck observed. "It's blowing the snow right up against the Wall. See?"
He was right. The switchback stair was buried almost to the first landing, Jon saw, and the wooden doors of the ice cells and storerooms had vanished behind a wall of white. "How many men do we have in ice cells?"
he asked Bowen Marsh.
"Four living men. Two dead ones."
The corpses. Jon had almost forgotten them. He had hoped to learn something from the bodies they'd brought back from the weirwood grove, but the dead men had stubbornly remained dead. "We need to dig those cells out."
"Ten stewards and ten spades should do it," said Marsh.
"Use Wun Wun too."
"As you command."
Ten stewards and one giant made short work of the drifts, but even when the doors were clear again, Jon was not satisfied. "Those cells will be buried again by morning. We'd best move the prisoners before they smother."
"Karstark too, m'lord?" asked Fulk the Flea. "Can't we just leave that one shivering till spring?"
"Would that we could." Cregan Karstark had taken to howling in the night of late, and throwing frozen feces at whoever came to feed him. That had not made him beloved of his guards. "Take him to the Lord Commander's Tower. The undervault should hold him." Though partly collapsed, the Old Bear's former seat would be warmer than the ice cells. Its subcellars were largely intact.
Cregan kicked at the guards when they came through the door, twisted and shoved when they grabbed him, even tried to bite them. But the cold had weakened him, and Jon's men were bigger, younger, and stronger. They hauled him out, still struggling, and dragged him through thigh-high snow to his new home.
"What would the lord commander like us to do with his corpses?"
asked Marsh when the living men had been moved.
"Leave them." If the storm entombed them, well and good. He would need to burn them eventually, no doubt, but for the nonce they were bound with iron chains inside their cells. That, and being dead, should suffice to hold them harmless.
Tormund Giantsbane timed his arrival perfectly, thundering up with his warriors when all the shoveling was done. Only fifty seemed to have turned up, not the eighty Toregg promised Leathers, but Tormund was not called Tall-Talker for naught. The wildling arrived red-faced, shouting for a horn of ale and something hot to eat. He had ice in his beard and more crusting his mustache.
Someone had already told the Thunderfist about Gerrick Kingsblood and his new style. "King o' the Wildlings?" Tormund roared. "Har! King o' My Hairy Butt Crack, more like."
"He has a regal look to him," Jon said. "He has a little red c**k to go with all that red hair, that'
s what he has. Raymund Redbeard and his sons
died at Long Lake, thanks to your bloody Starks and the Drunken Giant. Not the little brother. Ever wonder why they called him the Red Raven?"
Tormund's mouth split in a gap-toothed grin. "First to fly the battle, he was. 'Twas a song about it, after. The singer had to find a rhyme for craven, so ..." He wiped his nose. "If your queen's knights want those girls o'
his, they're welcome to them."
"Girls," squawked Mormont's raven. "Girls, girls. "
That set Tormund to laughing all over again. "Now there's a bird with sense. How much do you want for him, Snow? I gave you a son, the least you could do is give me the bloody bird."
"I would," said Jon, "but like as not you'd eat him."
Tormund roared at that as well. "Eat," the raven said darkly, flapping its black wings. "Corn? Corn? Corn? "
"We need to talk about the ranging," said Jon. "I want us to be of one mind at the Shieldhall, we must - " He broke off when Mully poked his nose inside the door, grim-faced, to announce that Clydas had brought a letter.
"Tell him to leave it with you. I will read it later."
"As you say, m'lord, only ... Clydas don't look his proper self ...
he's more white than pink, if you get my meaning ... and he's shaking."
"Dark wings, dark words," muttered Tormund. "Isn't that what you kneelers say?"
"We say, Bleed a cold but feast a fever too," Jon told him. "We say, Never drink with Dornishmen when the moon is full. We say a lot of things."
Mully added his two groats. "My old grandmother always used to say, Summer friends will melt away like summer snows, but winter friends are friends forever. "
"I think that's sufficient wisdom for the moment," said Jon Snow.
"Show Clydas in if you would be so good."
Mully had not been wrong; the old steward was trembling, his face as pale as the snows outside. "I am being foolish, Lord Commander, but ...
this letter frightens me. See here?"
Bastard, was the only word written outside the scroll. No Lord Snow or Jon Snow or Lord Commander. Simply Bastard. And the letter was sealed with a smear of hard pink wax. "You were right to come at once,"
You were right to be afraid. He cracked the seal, flattened the parchment, and read.
Your false king is dead, bastard. He and all his host were smashed in seven days of battle. I have his magic sword. Tell his red whore. Your false king' s friends are dead. Their heads upon the walls of Winterfell. Come see them, bastard. Your false king lied, and so did you. You told the world you burned the King-Beyond-the-Wall. Instead you sent him to Winterfell to steal my bride from me.
I will have my bride back. If you want Mance Rayder back, come and get him. I have him in a cage for all the north to see, proof of your lies. The cage is cold, but I have made him a warm cloak from the skins of the six whores who came with him to Winterfell.
I want my bride back. I want the false king' s queen. I want his daughter and his red witch. I want his wildling princess. I want his little prince, the wildling babe. And I want my Reek. Send them to me, bastard, and I will not trouble you or your black crows. Keep them from me, and I will cut out your bastard' s heart and eat it. It was signed,
Trueborn Lord of Winterfell.
"Snow?" said Tormund Giantsbane. "You look like your father'
s bloody head just rolled out o' that paper."
Jon Snow did not answer at once. "Mully, help Clydas back to his chambers. The night is dark, and the paths will be slippery with snow. Satin, go with them." He handed Tormund Giantsbane the letter. "Here, see for yourself."
The wildling gave the letter a dubious look and handed it right back.
"Feels nasty ... but Tormund Thunderfist had better things to do than learn to make papers talk at him. They never have any good to say, now do they?"
"Not often," Jon Snow admitted. Dark wings, dark words. Perhaps there was more truth to those wise old sayings than he'd known. "It was sent by Ramsay Snow. I'll read you what he wrote."
When he was done, Tormund whistled. "Har. That's buggered, and no mistake. What was that about Mance? Has him in a cage, does he? How, when hundreds saw your red witch burn the man?"
That was Rattleshirt, Jon almost said. That was sorcery. A glamor, she called it. "Melisandre ... look to the skies, she said." He set the letter down. "A raven in a storm. She saw this coming." When you have your answers, send to me.
"Might be all a skin o' lies." Tormund scratched under his beard.
"If I had me a nice goose quill and a pot o' maester's ink, I could write down that me member was long and thick as me arm, wouldn't make it so."
"He has Lightbringer. He talks of heads upon the walls of Winterfell. He knows about the spearwives and their number." He knows about Mance Rayder. "No. There is truth in there."
"I won't say you're wrong. What do you mean to do, crow?"
Jon flexed the fingers of his sword hand. The Night' s Watch takes no part. He closed his fist and opened it again. What you propose is nothing less than treason. He thought of Robb, with snowflakes melting in his hair. Kill the boy and let the man be born. He thought of Bran, clambering up a tower wall, agile as a monkey. Of Rickon's breathless laughter. Of Sansa, brushing out Lady's coat and singing to herself. You know nothing, Jon Snow. He thought of Arya, her hair as tangled as a bird's nest. I made him a warm cloak from the skins of the six whores who came with him to Winterfell ... I want my bride back ... I want my bride back ... I want my bride back ...
"I think we had best change the plan," Jon Snow said.
They talked for the best part of two hours.
Horse and Rory had replaced Fulk and Mully at the armory door with the change of watch. "With me,"
Jon told them, when the time came. Ghost
would have followed as well, but as the wolf came padding after them, Jon grabbed him by the scruff of his neck and wrestled him back inside. Borroq might be amongst those gathering at the Shieldhall. The last thing he needed just now was his wolf savaging the skinchanger's boar.
The Shieldhall was one of the older parts of Castle Black, a long drafty feast hall of dark stone, its oaken rafters black with the smoke of centuries. Back when the Night's Watch had been much larger, its walls had been hung with rows of brightly colored wooden shields. Then as now, when a knight took the black, tradition decreed that he set aside his former arms and take up the plain black shield of the brotherhood. The shields thus discarded would hang in the Shieldhall.
Hundreds of knights meant hundreds of shields. Hawks and eagles, dragons and griffins, suns and stags, wolves and wyverns, manticores, bulls, trees and flowers, harps, spears, crabs and krakens, red lions and golden lions and chequy lions, owls, lambs, maids and mermen, stallions, stars, buckets and buckles, flayed men and hanged men and burning men, axes, longswords, turtles, unicorns, bears, quills, spiders and snakes and scorpions, and a hundred other heraldic charges had adorned the Shieldhall walls, blazoned in more colors than any rainbow ever dreamed of.
But when a knight died, his shield was taken down, that it might go with him to his pyre or his tomb, and over the years and centuries fewer and fewer knights had taken the black. A day came when it no longer made sense for the knights of Castle Black to dine apart. The Shieldhall was abandoned. In the last hundred years, it had been used only infrequently. As a dining hall, it left much to be desired - it was dark, dirty, drafty, and hard to heat in winter, its cellars infested with rats, its massive wooden rafters worm-eaten and festooned with cobwebs.
But it was large and long enough to seat two hundred, and half again that many if they crowded close. When Jon and Tormund entered, a sound went through the hall, like wasps stirring in a nest. The wildlings outnumbered the crows by five to one, judging by how little black he saw. Fewer than a dozen shields remained, sad grey things with faded paint and long cracks in the wood. But fresh torches burned in the iron sconces along the walls, and Jon had ordered benches and tables brought in. Men with comfortable seats were more inclined to listen, Maester Aemon had once told him; standing men were more inclined to shout.