"The babe?" Her voice trembled. "He never broke no oath, m'lord. He sleeps and cries and sucks, is all; he's never done no harm to no one. Don't let her burn him. Save him, please."
"Only you can do that, Gilly." Jon told her how.
Another woman would have shrieked at him, cursed him, damned him down to seven hells. Another woman might have flown at him in rage, slapped him, kicked him, raked at his eyes with her nails. Another woman might have thrown her defiance in his teeth.
Gilly shook her head. "No. Please, no."
The raven picked up the word. "No, " it screamed. "Refuse, and the boy will burn. Not on the morrow, nor the day after ... but soon, whenever Melisandre needs to wake a dragon or raise a wind or work some other spell requiring king's blood. Mance will be ash and bone by then, so she will claim his son for the fire, and Stannis will not deny her. If you do not take the boy away, she will burn him. "
"I'll go," said Gilly. "I'll take him, I'll take the both o' them, Dalla's boy and mine."
Tears rolled down her cheeks. If not for the way the candle made them glisten, Jon might never have known that she was weeping. Craster' s wives would have taught their daughters to shed their tears into a pillow. Perhaps they went outside to weep, well away from Craster' s fists.
Jon closed the fingers of his sword hand. "Take both boys and the queen's men will ride after you and drag you back. The boy will still burn ... and you with him." If I comfort her, she may think that tears can move me. She has to realize that I will not yield. "You'll take one boy, and that one Dalla's."
"A mother can't leave her son, or else she's cursed forever. Not a son. We saved him, Sam and me. Please. Please, m'lord. We saved him from the cold."
"Men say that freezing to death is almost peaceful. Fire, though ... do you see the candle, Gilly?"
She looked at the flame. "Yes."
"Touch it. Put your hand over the flame."
Her big brown eyes grew bigger still. She did not move. "Do it."
Kill the boy. "Now."
Trembling, the girl reached out her hand, held it well above the flickering candle flame.
"Down. Let it kiss you."
Gilly lowered her hand. An inch. Another. When the flame licked her flesh, she snatched her hand back and began to sob.
"Fire is a cruel way to die. Dalla died to give this child life, but you have nourished him, cherished him. You saved your own boy from the ice. Now save hers from the fire."
"They'll burn my babe, then. The red woman. If she can't have Dalla's, she'll burn mine."
"Your son has no king's blood. Melisandre gains nothing by giving him to the fire. Stannis wants the free folk to fight for him, he will not burn an innocent without good cause. Your boy will be safe. I will find a wet nurse for him and he'll be raised here at Castle Black under my protection. He'll learn to hunt and ride, to fight with sword and axe and bow. I'll even see that he is taught to read and write." Sam would like that. "And when he is old enough, he will learn the truth of who he is. He'll be free to seek you out if that is what he wants."
"You will make a crow of him." She wiped at her tears with the back of a small pale hand. "I won't. I won't."
Kill the boy, thought Jon. "You will. Else I promise you, the day that they burn Dalla's boy, yours will die as well."
"Die, " shrieked the Old Bear's raven. "Die, die, die. "
The girl sat hunched and shrunken, staring at the candle flame, tears glistening in her eyes. Finally Jon said, "You have my leave to go. Do not speak of this, but see that you are ready to depart an hour before first light. My men will come for you."
Gilly got to her feet. Pale and wordless, she departed, with never a look back at him. Jon heard her footsteps as she rushed through the armory. She was almost running.
When he went to close the door, Jon saw that Ghost was stretched out beneath the anvil, gnawing on the bone of an ox. The big white direwolf looked up at his approach. "Past time that you were back." He returned to his chair, to read over Maester Aemon's letter once again. Samwell Tarly turned up a few moments later, clutching a stack of books. No sooner had he entered than Mormont's raven flew at him demanding corn. Sam did his best to oblige, offering some kernels from the sack beside the door. The raven did its best to peck through his palm. Sam yowled, the bird flapped off, corn scattered. "Did that wretch break the skin?" Jon asked.
Sam gingerly removed his glove. "He did. I'm bleeding. "
"We all shed our blood for the Watch. Wear thicker gloves." Jon shoved a chair toward him with a foot. "Sit, and have a look at this." He handed Sam the parchment.
"What is it?"
"A paper shield."
Sam read it slowly. "A letter to King Tommen?"
"At Winterfell, Tommen fought my brother Bran with wooden swords,"Jon said, remembering. "He wore so much padding he looked like a stuffed goose. Bran knocked him to the ground." He went to the window and threw the shutters open. The air outside was cold and bracing, though the sky was a dull grey. "Yet Bran's dead, and pudgy pink-faced Tommen is sitting on the Iron Throne, with a crown nestled amongst his golden curls."
That got an odd look from Sam, and for a moment he looked as if he wanted to say something. Instead he swallowed and turned back to the parchment. "You haven't signed the letter."
Jon shook his head. "The Old Bear begged the Iron Throne for help a hundred times. They sent him Janos Slynt. No letter will make the Lannisters love us better. Not once they hear that we've been helping Stannis."
"Only to defend the Wall, not in his rebellion. That's what it says here."
"The distinction may escape Lord Tywin." Jon snatched the letter back. "Why would he help us now? He never did before."
"Well, he will not want it said that Stannis rode to the defense of the realm whilst King Tommen was playing with his toys. That would bring scorn down upon House Lannister."
"It's death and destruction I want to bring down upon House Lannister, not scorn." Jon read from the letter. "The Night' s Watch takes no part in the wars of the Seven Kingdoms. Our oaths are sworn to the realm, and the realm now stands in dire peril. Stannis Baratheon aids us against our foes from beyond the Wall, though we are not his men ..."
Sam squirmed in his seat. "Well, we're not. Are we?"
"I gave Stannis food, shelter, and the Nightfort, plus leave to settle some free folk in the Gift. That's all."
"Lord Tywin will say it was too much."
"Stannis says it's not enough. The more you give a king, the more he wants. We are walking on a bridge of ice with an abyss on either side. Pleasing one king is difficult enough. Pleasing two is hardly possible."
"Yes, but ... if the Lannisters should prevail and Lord Tywin decides that we betrayed the king by aiding Stannis, it could mean the end of the Night's Watch. He has the Tyrells behind him, with all the strength of Highgarden. And he did defeat Lord Stannis on the Blackwater."
"The Blackwater was one battle. Robb won all his battles and still lost his head. If Stannis can raise the north ..."
Sam hesitated, then said, "The Lannisters have northmen of their own. Lord Bolton and his bastard."
"Stannis has the Karstarks. If he can win White Harbor ..."
"If," Sam stressed. "If not ... my lord, even a paper shield is better than none."
"I suppose so." Him and Aemon both. Somehow he had hoped that Sam Tarly might see it differently. It is only ink and parchment. Resigned, he grabbed the quill and signed. "Get the sealing wax." Before I change my mind. Sam hastened to obey. Jon fixed the lord commander's seal and handed him the letter. "Take this to Maester Aemon when you leave, and tell him to dispatch a bird to King's Landing."
"I will." Sam sounded relieved. "My lord, if I might ask ... I saw Gilly leaving. She was almost crying."
"Val sent her to plead for Mance again," Jon lied, and they talked for a while of Mance and Stannis and Melisandre of Asshai, until the raven ate the last corn kernel and screamed, "Blood. "
"I am sending Gilly away," Jon said. "Her and the boy. We will need to find another wet nurse for his milk brother."
"Goat's milk might serve, until you do. It's better for a babe than cow's milk." Talking about br**sts plainly made Sam uncomfortable, and suddenly he began to speak of history, and boy commanders who had lived and died hundreds of years ago. Jon cut him off with, "Tell me something useful. Tell me of our enemy."
"The Others." Sam licked his lips. "They are mentioned in the annals, though not as often as I would have thought. The annals I've found and looked at, that is. There's more I haven't found, I know. Some of the older books are falling to pieces. The pages crumble when I try and turn them. And the really old books ... either they have crumbled all away or they are buried somewhere that I haven't looked yet or ... well, it could be that there are no such books and never were. The oldest histories we have were written after the Andals came to Westeros. The First Men only left us runes on rocks, so everything we think we know about the Age of Heroes and the Dawn Age and the Long Night comes from accounts set down by septons thousands of years later. There are archmaesters at the Citadel who question all of it. Those old histories are full of kings who reigned for hundreds of years, and knights riding around a thousand years before there were knights. You know the tales, Brandon the Builder, Symeon Star-Eyes, Night's King ... we say that you're the nine-hundred-and-ninety-eighth Lord Commander of the Night's Watch, but the oldest list I've found shows six hundred seventy-four commanders, which suggests that it was written during - "
"Long ago," Jon broke in. "What about the Others?"
"I found mention of dragonglass. The children of the forest used to give the Night's Watch a hundred obsidian daggers every year, during the Age of Heroes. The Others come when it is cold, most of the tales agree. Or else it gets cold when they come. Sometimes they appear during snowstorms and melt away when the skies clear. They hide from the light of the sun and emerge by night ... or else night falls when they emerge. Some stories speak of them riding the corpses of dead animals. Bears, direwolves, mammoths, horses, it makes no matter, so long as the beast is dead. The one that killed Small Paul was riding a dead horse, so that part's plainly true. Some accounts speak of giant ice spiders too. I don't know what those are. Men who fall in battle against the Others must be burned, or else the dead will rise again as their thralls."
"We knew all this. The question is, how do we fight them?"
"The armor of the Others is proof against most ordinary blades, if the tales can be believed, and their own swords are so cold they shatter steel. Fire will dismay them, though, and they are vulnerable to obsidian. I found one account of the Long Night that spoke of the last hero slaying Others with a blade of dragonsteel. Supposedly they could not stand against it."
"Dragonsteel?" The term was new to Jon. "Valyrian steel?"