At the top of the hall a sagging platform stood. Jon mounted it, with Tormund Giantsbane at his side, and raised his hands for quiet. The wasps only buzzed the louder. Then Tormund put his warhorn to his lips and blew a blast. The sound filled the hall, echoing off the rafters overhead. Silence fell.
"I summoned you to make plans for the relief of Hardhome," Jon Snow began. "Thousands of the free folk are gathered there, trapped and starving, and we have had reports of dead things in the wood." To his left he saw Marsh and Yarwyck. Othell was surrounded by his builders, whilst Bowen had Wick Whittlestick, Left Hand Lew, and Alf of Runnymudd beside him. To his right, Soren Shieldbreaker sat with his arms crossed against his chest. Farther back, Jon saw Gavin the Trader and Harle the Handsome whispering together. Ygon Oldfather sat amongst his wives, Howd Wanderer alone. Borroq leaned against a wall in a dark corner. Mercifully, his boar was nowhere in evidence. "The ships I sent to take off Mother Mole and her people have been wracked by storms. We must send what help we can by land or let them die." Two of Queen Selyse's knights had come as well, Jon saw. Ser Narbert and Ser Benethon stood near the door at the foot of the hall. But the rest of the queen's men were conspicuous in their absence. "I had hoped to lead the ranging myself and bring back as many of the free folk as could survive the journey." A flash of red in the back of the hall caught Jon's eye. Lady Melisandre had arrived.
"But now I find I cannot go to Hardhome. The ranging will be led by Tormund Giantsbane, known to you all. I have promised him as many men as he requires."
"And where will you be, crow? " Borroq thundered. "Hiding here in Castle Black with your white dog?"
"No. I ride south." Then Jon read them the letter Ramsay Snow had written.
The Shieldhall went mad.
Every man began to shout at once. They leapt to their feet, shaking fists. So much for the calming power of comfortable benches. Swords were brandished, axes smashed against shields. Jon Snow looked to Tormund. The Giantsbane sounded his horn once more, twice as long and twice as loud as the first time.
"The Night's Watch takes no part in the wars of the Seven
Kingdoms," Jon reminded them when some semblance of quiet had returned. "It is not for us to oppose the Bastard of Bolton, to avenge Stannis Baratheon, to defend his widow and his daughter. This creature who makes cloaks from the skins of women has sworn to cut my heart out, and I mean to make him answer for those words ... but I will not ask my brothers to forswear their vows.
"The Night's Watch will make for Hardhome. I ride to Winterfell alone, unless ..." Jon paused. "... is there any man here who will come stand with me?"
The roar was all he could have hoped for, the tumult so loud that the two old shields tumbled from the walls. Soren Shieldbreaker was on his feet, the Wanderer as well. Toregg the Tall, Brogg, Harle the Huntsman and Harle the Handsome both, Ygon Oldfather, Blind Doss, even the Great Walrus. I have my swords, thought Jon Snow, and we are coming for you, Bastard.
Yarwyck and Marsh were slipping out, he saw, and all their men behind them. It made no matter. He did not need them now. He did not want them. No man can ever say I made my brothers break their vows. If this is oathbreaking, the crime is mine and mine alone. Then Tormund was pounding him on the back, all gap-toothed grin from ear to ear. "Well spoken, crow. Now bring out the mead! Make them yours and get them drunk, that's how it's done. We'll make a wildling o' you yet, boy. Har!"
"I will send for ale," Jon said, distracted. Melisandre was gone, he realized, and so were the queen's knights. I should have gone to Selyse first. She has the right to know her lord is dead. "You must excuse me. I'
ll leave you to get them drunk."
"Har! A task I'm well suited for, crow. On your way!"
Horse and Rory fell in beside Jon as he left the Shieldhall. I should talk with Melisandre after I see the queen, he thought. If she could see a raven in a storm, she can find Ramsay Snow for me. Then he heard the shouting ... and a roar so loud it seemed to shake the Wall. "That come from Hardin's Tower, m'lord," Horse reported. He might have said more, but the scream cut him off.
Val, was Jon's first thought. But that was no woman's scream. That is a man in mortal agony. He broke into a run. Horse and Rory raced after him. "Is it wights?" asked Rory. Jon wondered. Could his corpses have escaped their chains?
The screaming had stopped by the time they came to Hardin's Tower, but Wun Weg Wun Dar Wun was still roaring. The giant was dangling a bloody corpse by one leg, the same way Arya used to dangle her doll when she was small, swinging it like a morningstar when menaced by vegetables. Arya never tore her dolls to pieces, though. The dead man's sword arm was yards away, the snow beneath it turning red.
"Let him go," Jon shouted. "Wun Wun, let him go."
Wun Wun did not hear or did not understand. The giant was bleeding himself, with sword cuts on his belly and his arm. He swung the dead knight against the grey stone of the tower, again and again and again, until the man's head was red and pulpy as a summer melon. The knight's cloak flapped in the cold air. Of white wool it had been, bordered in cloth-of-silver and patterned with blue stars. Blood and bone were flying everywhere. Men poured from the surrounding keeps and towers. Northmen, free folk, queen's men ... "Form a line," Jon Snow commanded them. "Keep them back. Everyone, but especially the queen's men." The dead man was Ser Patrek of King's Mountain; his head was largely gone, but his heraldry was as distinctive as his face. Jon did not want to risk Ser Malegorn or Ser Brus or any of the queen's other knights trying to avenge him.
Wun Weg Wun Dar Wun howled again and gave Ser Patrek's other arm a twist and pull. It tore loose from his shoulder with a spray of bright red blood. Like a child pulling petals off a daisy, thought Jon. "Leathers, talk to him, calm him. The Old Tongue, he understands the Old Tongue. Keep back, the rest of you. Put away your steel, we're scaring him."
Couldn't they see the giant had been cut? Jon had to put an end to this or more men would die. They had no idea of Wun Wun's strength. A horn, I need a horn. He saw the glint of steel, turned toward it. "No blades! " he screamed. "Wick, put that knife ..."
... away, he meant to say. When Wick Whittlestick slashed at his throat, the word turned into a grunt. Jon twisted from the knife, just enough so it barely grazed his skin. He cut me. When he put his hand to the side of his neck, blood welled between his fingers. "Why? "
"For the Watch." Wick slashed at him again. This time Jon caught his wrist and bent his arm back until he dropped the dagger. The gangling steward backed away, his hands upraised as if to say, Not me, it was not me. Men were screaming. Jon reached for Longclaw, but his fingers had grown stiff and clumsy. Somehow he could not seem to get the sword free of its scabbard.
Then Bowen Marsh stood there before him, tears running down his cheeks. "For the Watch." He punched Jon in the belly. When he pulled his hand away, the dagger stayed where he had buried it.
Jon fell to his knees. He found the dagger's hilt and wrenched it free. In the cold night air the wound was smoking. "Ghost," he whispered. Pain washed over him. Stick them with the pointy end. When the third dagger took him between the shoulder blades, he gave a grunt and fell face-first into the snow. He never felt the fourth knife. Only the cold ...
THE QUEEN'S HAND
The Dornish prince was three days dying.
He took his last shuddering breath in the bleak black dawn, as cold rain hissed from a dark sky to turn the brick streets of the old city into rivers. The rain had drowned the worst of the fires, but wisps of smoke still rose from the smoldering ruin that had been the pyramid of Hazkar, and the great black pyramid of Yherizan where Rhaegal had made his lair hulked in the gloom like a fat woman bedecked with glowing orange jewels. Perhaps the gods are not deaf after all, Ser Barristan Selmy reflected as he watched those distant embers. If not for the rain, the fires might have consumed all of Meereen by now.
He saw no sign of dragons, but he had not expected to. The dragons did not like the rain. A thin red slash marked the eastern horizon where the sun might soon appear. It reminded Selmy of the first blood welling from a wound. Often, even with a deep cut, the blood came before the pain. He stood beside the parapets of the highest step of the Great Pyramid, searching the sky as he did every morning, knowing that the dawn must come and hoping that his queen would come with it. She will not have abandoned us, she would never leave her people, he was telling himself, when he heard the prince's death rattle coming from the queen's apartments.
Ser Barristan went inside. Rainwater ran down the back of his white cloak, and his boots left wet tracks on the floors and carpets. At his command, Quentyn Martell had been laid out in the queen's own bed. He had been a knight, and a prince of Dorne besides. It seemed only kind to let him die in the bed he had crossed half a world to reach. The bedding was ruined - sheets, covers, pillows, mattress, all reeked of blood and smoke, but Ser Barristan thought Daenerys would forgive him.
Missandei sat at the bedside. She had been with the prince night and day, tending to such needs as he could express, giving him water and milk of the poppy when he was strong enough to drink, listening to the few tortured words he gasped out from time to time, reading to him when he fell quiet, sleeping in her chair beside him. Ser Barristan had asked some of the queen'
s cupbearers to help, but the sight of the burned man was too much for even the boldest of them. And the Blue Graces had never come, though he'd sent for them four times. Perhaps the last of them had been carried off by the pale mare by now.
The tiny Naathi scribe looked up at his approach. "Honored ser. The prince is beyond pain now. His Dornish gods have taken him home. See? He smiles."
How can you tell? He has no lips. It would have been kinder if the dragons had devoured him. That at least would have been quick. This ...
Fire is a hideous way to die. Small wonder half the hells are made of flame.
Missandei pulled the coverlet over the prince's face. "What will be done with him, ser? He is so very far from home."
"I'll see that he's returned to Dorne." But how? As ashes? That would require more fire, and Ser Barristan could not stomach that. We' ll need to strip the flesh from his bones. Beetles, not boiling. The silent sisters would have seen to it at home, but this was Slaver's Bay. The nearest silent sister was ten thousand leagues away. "You should go sleep now, child. In your own bed."
"If this one may be so bold, ser, you should do the same. You do not sleep the whole night through."
Not for many years, child. Not since the Trident. Grand Maester Pycelle had once told him that old men do not need as much sleep as the young, but it was more than that. He had reached that age when he was loath to close his eyes, for fear that he might never open them again. Other men might wish to die in bed asleep, but that was no death for a knight of the Kingsguard.
"The nights are too long," he told Missandei, "and there is much and more to do, always. Here, as in the Seven Kingdoms. But you have done enough for now, child. Go and rest." And if the gods are good, you will not dream of dragons.