A Dance with Dragons (A Song of Ice and Fire 5) - Page 29

"One realm, one god, one king! " cried Lady Melisandre. The queen's men took up the cry, beating the butts of their spears against their shields. "One realm, one god, one king! STANNIS! STANNIS!

ONE REALM, ONE GOD, ONE KING! "

Val did not join the chant, he saw. Nor did the brothers of the Night's Watch. During the tumult the few remaining wildlings melted into the trees. The giants were the last to go, two riding on the back of a mammoth, the other two afoot. Only the dead were left behind. Jon watched Stannis descend from the platform, with Melisandre by his side. His red shadow. She never leaves his side for long. The king's honor guard fell in around them - Ser Godry, Ser Clayton, and a dozen other knights, queen's men all. Moonlight shimmered on their armor and the wind whipped at their cloaks.

"Lord Steward," Jon told Marsh, "break up that stockade for firewood and throw the corpses in the flames."

"As my lord commands." Marsh barked out orders, and a swarm of his stewards broke from ranks to attack the wooden walls. The Lord Steward watched them, frowning. "These wildlings ... do you think they will keep faith, my lord?"

"Some will. Not all. We have our cowards and our knaves, our weak-lings and our fools, as do they."

"Our vows ... we are sworn to protect the realm ..."

"Once the free folk are settled in the Gift, they will become part of the realm," Jon pointed out. "These are desperate days, and like to grow more desperate. We have seen the face of our real foe, a dead white face with bright blue eyes. The free folk have seen that face as well. Stannis is not wrong in this. We must make common cause with the wildlings."

"Common cause against a common foe, I could agree with that," said Bowen Marsh, "but that does not mean we should allow tens of thousands of half-starved savages through the Wall. Let them return to their villages and fight the Others there, whilst we seal the gates. It will not be difficult, Othell tells me. We need only fill the tunnels with chunks of stone and pour water through the murder holes. The Wall does the rest. The cold, the weight ... in a moon's turn, it will be as if no gate had ever been. Any foe would need to hack his way through."

"Or climb."

"Unlikely," said Bowen Marsh. "These are not raiders, out to steal a wife and some plunder. Tormund will have old women with him, children, herds of sheep and goats, even mammoths. He needs a gate, and only three of those remain. And if he should send climbers up, well, defending against climbers is as simple as spearing fish in a kettle."

Fish never climb out of the kettle and shove a spear through your belly. Jon had climbed the Wall himself.

Marsh went on. "Mance Rayder's bowmen must have loosed ten thousand arrows at us, judging from the number of spent shafts we've gathered up. Fewer than a hundred reached our men atop the Wall, most of those lifted by some errant gust of wind. Red Alyn of the Rosewood was the only man to die up there, and it was his fall that killed him, not the arrow that pricked his leg. Donal Noye died to hold the gate. A gallant act, yes ... but if the gate had been sealed, our brave armorer might still be with us. Whether we face a hundred foes or a hundred thousand, so long as we're atop the Wall and they're below, they cannot do us harm."

He' s not wrong. Mance Rayder's host had broken against the Wall like a wave upon a stony shore, though the defenders were no more than a handful of old men, green boys, and cripples. Yet what Bowen was suggesting went against all of Jon's instincts. "If we seal the gates, we cannot send out rangers," he pointed out. "We will be as good as blind."

"Lord Mormont's last ranging cost the Watch a quarter of its men, my lord. We need to conserve what strength remains us. Every death diminishes us, and we are stretched so thin ... Take the high ground and win the battle, my uncle used to say. No ground is higher than the Wall, Lord Commander."

"Stannis promises land, food, and justice to any wildlings who bend the knee. He will never permit us to seal the gates."

Marsh hesitated. "Lord Snow, I am not one to bear tales, but there has been talk that you are becoming too ... too friendly with Lord Stannis. Some even suggest that you are ... a ..."

A rebel and a turncloak, aye, and a bastard and a warg as well. Janos Slynt might be gone, but his lies lingered. "I know what they say." Jon had heard the whispers, had seen men turn away when he crossed the yard.

"What would they have me do, take up swords against Stannis and the wildlings both? His Grace has thrice the fighting men we do, and is our guest besides. The laws of hospitality protect him. And we owe him and his a debt."

"Lord Stannis helped us when we needed help," Marsh said doggedly, "but he is still a rebel, and his cause is doomed. As doomed as we'll be if the Iron Throne marks us down as traitors. We must be certain that we do not choose the losing side."

"It is not my intent to choose any side," said Jon, "but I am not as certain of the outcome of this war as you seem to be, my lord. Not with Lord Tywin dead." If the tales coming up the kingsroad could be believed, the King's Hand had been murdered by his dwarf son whilst sitting on a privy. Jon had known Tyrion Lannister, briefly. He took my hand and named me friend. It was hard to believe the little man had it in him to murder his own sire, but the fact of Lord Tywin's demise seemed to be beyond doubt. "The lion in King's Landing is a cub, and the Iron Throne has been known to cut grown men to ribbons."

"A boy he may be, my lord, but ... King Robert was well loved, and most men still accept that Tommen is his son. The more they see of Lord Stannis the less they love him, and fewer still are fond of Lady Melisandre with her fires and this grim red god of hers. They complain."

"They complained about Lord Commander Mormont too. Men love to complain about their wives and lords, he told me once. Those without wives complain twice as much about their lords." Jon Snow glanced toward the stockade. Two walls were down, a third falling fast. "I will leave you to finish here, Bowen. Make certain every corpse is burned. Thank you for your counsel. I promise you, I will think on all you've said."

Smoke and drifting ash still lingered in the air about the pit as Jon trotted back to the gate. There he dismounted, to walk his garron through the ice to the south side. Dolorous Edd went before him with a torch. Its flames licked the ceiling, so cold tears trickled down upon them with every step.

"It was a relief to see that horn burn, my lord," Edd said. "Just last night I dreamt I was pissing off the Wall when someone decided to give the horn a toot. Not that I'm complaining. It was better than my old dream, where Harma Dogshead was feeding me to her pigs."

"Harma's dead," Jon said. "But not the pigs. They look at me the way Slayer used to look at ham. Not to say that the wildlings mean us harm. Aye, we hacked their gods apart and made them burn the pieces, but we gave them onion soup. What's a god compared to a nice bowl of onion soup? I could do with one myself."

The odors of smoke and burned flesh still clung to Jon's blacks. He knew he had to eat, but it was company he craved, not food. A cup of wine with Maester Aemon, some quiet words with Sam, a few laughs with Pyp and Grenn and Toad. Aemon and Sam were gone, though, and his other friends ... "I will take supper with the men this evening."

"Boiled beef and beets." Dolorous Edd always seemed to know what was cooking. "Hobb says he's out of horseradish, though. What good is boiled beef without horseradish?"

Since the wildlings had burned the old common hall, the men of the Night's Watch took their meals in the stone cellar below the armory, a cavernous space pided by two rows of square stone pillars, with barrel-vaulted ceilings and great casks of wine and ale along the walls. When Jon entered, four builders were playing at tiles at the table nearest the steps. Closer to the fire sat a group of rangers and a few king's men, talking quietly.

The younger men were gathered at another table, where Pyp had stabbed a turnip with his knife. "The night is dark and full of turnips," he announced in a solemn voice. "Let us all pray for venison, my children, with some onions and a bit of tasty gravy." His friends laughed - Grenn, Toad, Satin, the whole lot of them.

Jon Snow did not join the laughter. "Making mock of another man's prayer is fool's work, Pyp. And dangerous."

"If the red god's offended, let him strike me down."

All the smiles had died. "It was the priestess we were laughing at," said Satin, a lithe and pretty youth who had once been a whore in Oldtown.

"We were only having a jape, my lord."

"You have your gods and she has hers. Leave her be."

"She won't let our gods be," argued Toad. "She calls the Seven false gods, m'lord. The old gods too. She made the wildlings burn weirwood branches. You saw."

"Lady Melisandre is not part of my command. You are. I won't have bad blood between the king's men and my own."

Pyp laid a hand on Toad's arm. "Croak no more, brave Toad, for our Great Lord Snow has spoken." Pyp hopped to his feet and gave Jon a mocking bow. "I beg pardon. Henceforth, I shall not even waggle my ears save by your lordship's lordly leave."

He thinks this is all some game. Jon wanted to shake some sense into him. "Waggle your ears all you like. It's your tongue waggling that makes the trouble."

"I'll see that he's more careful," Grenn promised, "and I'll clout him if he's not." He hesitated. "My lord, will you sup with us? Owen, shove over and make room for Jon."

Jon wanted nothing more. No, he had to tell himself, those days are gone. The realization twisted in his belly like a knife. They had chosen him to rule. The Wall was his, and their lives were his as well. A lord may love the men that he commands, he could hear his lord father saying, but he cannot be a friend to them. One day he may need to sit in judgment on them, or send them forth to die. "Another day," the lord commander lied. "Edd, best see to your own supper. I have work to finish."

The outside air seemed even colder than before. Across the castle, he could see candlelight shining from the windows of the King's Tower. Val stood on the tower roof, gazing up at the Wall. Stannis kept her closely penned in rooms above his own, but he did allow her to walk the battlements for exercise. She looks lonely, Jon thought. Lonely, and lovely. Ygritte had been pretty in her own way, with her red hair kissed by fire, but it was her smile that made her face come alive. Val did not need to smile; she would have turned men's heads in any court in the wide world.

All the same, the wildling princess was not beloved of her gaolers. She scorned them all as "kneelers," and had thrice attempted to escape. When one man-at-arms grew careless in her presence she had snatched his dagger from its sheath and stabbed him in the neck. Another inch to the left and he might have died.

Lonely and lovely and lethal, Jon Snow reflected, and I might have had her. Her, and Winterfell, and my lord father' s name. Instead he had chosen a black cloak and a wall of ice. Instead he had chosen honor. A bastard' s sort of honor.

The Wall loomed on his right as he crossed the yard. Its high ice glimmered palely, but down below all was shadow. At the gate a dim orange glow shone through the bars where the guards had taken refuge from the wind. Jon could hear the creak of chains as the winch cage swung and scraped against the ice. Up top, the sentries would be huddling in the warming shed around a brazier, shouting to be heard above the wind. Or else they would have given up the effort, and each man would be sunk in his own pool of silence. I should be walking the ice. The Wall is mine.

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