"It was a long summer. The harvests were bountiful, the lords generous. We had enough laid by to see us through three years of winter. Four, with a bit of scrimping. Now, though, if we must go on feeding all these king's men and queen's men and wildlings ... Mole's Town alone has a thousand useless mouths, and still they come. Three more turned up yesterday at the gates, a dozen the day before. It cannot go on. Settling them on the Gift, that's well and good, but it is too late to plant crops. We'll be down to turnips and pease porridge before the year is out. After that we'll be drinking the blood of our own horses."
"Yum," declared Dolorous Edd. "Nothing beats a hot cup of horse blood on a cold night. I like mine with a pinch of cinnamon sprinkled on top."
The Lord Steward paid him no mind. "There will be sickness too," he went on, "bleeding gums and loose teeth. Maester Aemon used to say that lime juice and fresh meat would remedy that, but our limes were gone a year ago and we do not have enough fodder to keep herds afoot for fresh meat. We should butcher all but a few breeding pairs. It's past time. In winters past, food could be brought up the kingsroad from the south, but with the war ... it is still autumn, I know, but I would advise we go on winter rations nonetheless, if it please my lord."
The men will love that. "If we must. We'll cut each man's portion by a quarter." If my brothers are complaining of me now, what will they say when they' re eating snow and acorn paste?
"That will help, my lord." The Lord Steward's tone made it plain that he did not think that it would help enough.
Dolorous Edd said, "Now I understand why King Stannis let the wild-lings through the Wall. He means for us to eat them."
Jon had to smile. "It will not come to that."
"Oh, good," said Edd. "They look a stringy lot, and my teeth are not as sharp as when I was younger."
"If we had sufficient coin, we could buy food from the south and bring it in by ship," the Lord Steward said.
We could, thought Jon, if we had the gold, and someone willing to sell us food. Both of those were lacking. Our best hope may be the Eyrie. The Vale of Arryn was famously fertile and had gone untouched during the fighting. Jon wondered how Lady Catelyn's sister would feel about feeding Ned Stark's bastard. As a boy, he often felt as if the lady grudged him every bite.
"We can always hunt if need be," Wick Whittlestick put in.
"There's still game in the woods."
"And wildlings, and darker things," said Marsh. "I would not send out hunters, my lord. I would not."
No. You would close our gates forever and seal them up with stone and ice. Half of Castle Black agreed with the Lord Steward's views, he knew. The other half heaped scorn on them. "Seal our gates and plant your fat black arses on the Wall, aye, and the free folk'll come swarming o'er the Bridge o' Skulls or through some gate you thought you'd sealed five hundred years ago," the old forester Dywen had declared loudly over supper,two nights past. "We don't have the men to watch a hundred leagues o'Wall. Tormund Giantsbutt and the bloody Weeper knows it too. Ever see a duck frozen in a pond, with his feet in the ice? It works the same for crows."
Most rangers echoed Dywen, whilst the stewards and builders inclined toward Bowen Marsh.
But that was a quandary for another day. Here and now, the problem was food. "We cannot leave King Stannis and his men to starve, even if we wished to," Jon said. "If need be, he could simply take all this at sword-point. We do not have the men to stop them. The wildlings must be fed as well."
"How, my lord?" asked Bowen Marsh.
Would that I knew. "We will find a way."
By the time they returned to the surface, the shadows of the afternoon were growing long. Clouds streaked the sky like tattered banners, grey and white and torn. The yard outside the armory was empty, but inside Jon found the king's squire awaiting him. Devan was a skinny lad of some twelve years, brown of hair and eye. They found him frozen by the forge, hardly daring to move as Ghost sniffed him up and down. "He won't hurt you,"
Jon said, but the boy flinched at the sound of his voice, and that sudden motion made the direwolf bare his teeth. "No! " Jon said. "Ghost, leave him be. Away. " The wolf slunk back to his ox bone, silence on four feet. Devan looked as pale as Ghost, his face damp with perspiration.
"M-my lord. His Grace c-commands your presence." The boy was clad in Baratheon gold and black, with the flaming heart of a queen's man sewn above his own.
"You mean requests, " said Dolorous Edd. "His Grace requests the presence of the lord commander. That's how I'd say it."
"Leave it be, Edd." Jon was in no mood for such squabbles. "Sir Richard and Ser Justin have returned," said Devan. "Will you come, my lord?"
The wrong-way rangers. Massey and Horpe had ridden south, not north. Whatever they had learned did not concern the Night's Watch, but Jon was curious all the same. "If it would please His Grace." He followed the young squire back across the yard. Ghost padded after them until Jon said, "No. Stay! " Instead the direwolf ran off. In the King's Tower, Jon was stripped of his weapons and admitted to the royal presence. The solar was hot and crowded. Stannis and his captains were gathered over the map of the north. The wrong-way rangers were amongst them. Sigorn was there as well, the young Magnar of Thenn, clad in a leather hauberk sewn with bronze scales. Rattleshirt sat scratching at the manacle on his wrist with a cracked yellow fingernail. Brown stubble covered his sunken cheeks and receding chin, and strands of dirty hair hung across his eyes. "Here he comes," he said when he saw Jon, "the brave boy who slew Mance Rayder when he was caged and bound." The big square-cut gem that adorned his iron cuff glimmered redly. "Do you like my ruby, Snow? A token o' love from Lady Red."
Jon ignored him and took a knee. "Your Grace," announced the squire Devan, "I've brought Lord Snow."
"I can see that. Lord Commander. You know my knights and captains, I believe."
"I have that honor." He had made it a point to learn all he could of the men around the king. Queen' s men, all. It struck Jon as odd that there were no king's men about the king, but that seemed to be the way of it. The king's men had incurred Stannis's ire on Dragonstone if the talk Jon heard was true.
"There is wine. Or water boiled with lemons."
"Thank you, but no."
"As you wish. I have a gift for you, Lord Snow." The king waved a hand at Rattleshirt. "Him."
Lady Melisandre smiled. "You did say you wanted men, Lord Snow. I believe our Lord of Bones still qualifies."
Jon was aghast. "Your Grace, this man cannot be trusted. If I keep him here, someone will slit his throat for him. If I send him ranging, he'll just go back over to the wildlings."
"Not me. I'm done with those bloody fools." Rattleshirt tapped the ruby on his wrist. "Ask your red witch, bastard."
Melisandre spoke softly in a strange tongue. The ruby at her throat throbbed slowly, and Jon saw that the smaller stone on Rattleshirt's wrist was brightening and darkening as well. "So long as he wears the gem he is bound to me, blood and soul," the red priestess said. "This man will serve you faithfully. The flames do not lie, Lord Snow."
Perhaps not, Jon thought, but you do.
"I'll range for you, bastard," Rattleshirt declared. "I'll give you sage counsel or sing you pretty songs, as you prefer. I'll even fight for you. Just don't ask me to wear your cloak."
You are not worthy of one, Jon thought, but he held his tongue. No good would come of squabbling before the king.
King Stannis said, "Lord Snow, tell me of Mors Umber."
The Night' s Watch takes no part, Jon thought, but another voice within him said, Words are not swords. "The elder of the Greatjon's uncles.
Crow-food, they call him. A crow once took him for dead and pecked out his eye. He caught the bird in his fist and bit its head off. When Mors was young he was a fearsome fighter. His sons died on the Trident, his wife in childbed. His only daughter was carried off by wildlings thirty years ago."
"That' s why he wants the head," said Harwood Fell. "Can this man Mors be trusted?" asked Stannis.
Has Mors Umber bent the knee? "Your Grace should have him swear an oath before his heart tree."
Godry the Giantslayer guffawed. "I had forgotten that you northmen worship trees."
"What sort of god lets himself be pissed upon by dogs?" asked Farring's crony Clayton Suggs.
Jon chose to ignore them. "Your Grace, might I know if the Umbers have declared for you?"
"Half of them, and only if I meet this Crowfood's price," said Stannis, in an irritated tone. "He wants Mance Rayder's skull for a drinking cup, and he wants a pardon for his brother, who has ridden south to join Bolton. Whoresbane, he's called."
Ser Godry was amused by that as well. "What names these northmen have! Did this one bite the head off some whore?"
Jon regarded him coolly. "You might say so. A whore who tried to rob him, fifty years ago in Oldtown." Odd as it might seem, old Hoarfrost Umber had once believed his youngest son had the makings of a maester. Mors loved to boast about the crow who took his eye, but Hother's tale was only told in whispers ... most like because the whore he'd disemboweled had been a man. "Have other lords declared for Bolton too?"
The red priestess slid closer to the king. "I saw a town with wooden walls and wooden streets, filled with men. Banners flew above its walls: a moose, a battle-axe, three pine trees, longaxes crossed beneath a crown, a horse's head with fiery eyes."
"Hornwood, Cerwyn, Tallhart, Ryswell, and Dustin," supplied Ser Clayton Suggs. "Traitors, all. Lapdogs of the Lannisters."
"The Ryswells and Dustins are tied to House Bolton by marriage,"
Jon informed him. "These others have lost their lords in the fighting. I do not know who leads them now. Crowfood is no lapdog, though. Your Grace would do well to accept his terms."
Stannis ground his teeth. "He informs me that Umber will not fight Umber, for any cause."
Jon was not surprised. "If it comes to swords, see where Hother's banner flies and put Mors on the other end of the line."
The Giantslayer disagreed. "You would make His Grace look weak. I say, show our strength. Burn Last Hearth to the ground and ride to war with Crowfood's head mounted on a spear, as a lesson to the next lord who presumes to offer half his homage."
"A fine plan if what you want is every hand in the north raised against you. Half is more than none. The Umbers have no love for the Boltons. If Whoresbane has joined the Bastard, it can only be because the Lannisters hold the Greatjon captive."
"That is his pretext, not his reason," declared Ser Godry. "If the nephew dies in chains, these uncles can claim his lands and lordship for themselves."
"The Greatjon has sons and daughters both. In the north the children of a man's body still come before his uncles, ser."
"Unless they die. Dead children come last everywhere."
"Suggest that in the hearing of Mors Umber, Ser Godry, and you will learn more of death than you might wish."