Jon realized that his words were wasted. Stannis would take the Dreadfort or die in the attempt. The Night' s Watch takes no part, a voice said, but another replied, Stannis fights for the realm, the ironmen for thralls and plunder. "Your Grace, I know where you might find more men. Give me the wildlings, and I will gladly tell you where and how."
"I gave you Rattleshirt. Be content with him."
"I want them all."
"Some of your own Sworn Brothers would have me believe that you are half a wildling yourself. Is it true?"
"To you they are only arrow fodder. I can make better use of them upon the Wall. Give them to me to do with as I will, and I'll show you where to find your victory ... and men as well."
Stannis rubbed the back of his neck. "You haggle like a crone with a codfish, Lord Snow. Did Ned Stark father you on some fishwife? How many men?"
"Two thousand. Perhaps three."
"Three thousand? What manner of men are these?"
"Proud. Poor. Prickly where their honor is concerned but fierce fighters."
"This had best not be some bastard's trick. Will I trade three hundred fighters for three thousand? Aye, I will. I am not an utter fool. If I leave the girl with you as well, do I have your word that you will keep our princess closely?"
She is not a princess. "As you wish, Your Grace."
"Do I need to make you swear an oath before a tree?"
"No." Was that a jape? With Stannis, it was hard to tell. "Done, then. Now, where are these men?"
"You'll find them here." Jon spread his burned hand across the map, west of the kingsroad and south of the Gift.
"Those mountains?" Stannis grew suspicious. "I see no castles marked there. No roads, no towns, no villages."
"The map is not the land, my father often said. Men have lived in the high valleys and mountain meadows for thousands of years, ruled by their clan chiefs. Petty lords, you would call them, though they do not use such titles amongst themselves. Clan champions fight with huge two-handed greatswords, while the common men sling stones and batter one another with staffs of mountain ash. A quarrelsome folk, it must be said. When they are not fighting one another, they tend their herds, fish the Bay of Ice, and breed the hardiest mounts you'll ever ride."
"And they will fight for me, you believe?"
"If you ask them."
"Why should I beg for what is owed me?"
"Ask, I said, not beg. " Jon pulled back his hand. "It is no good sending messages. Your Grace will need to go to them yourself. Eat their bread and salt, drink their ale, listen to their pipers, praise the beauty of their daughters and the courage of their sons, and you'll have their swords. The clans have not seen a king since Torrhen Stark bent his knee. Your coming does them honor. Command them to fight for you, and they will look at one another and say, 'Who is this man? He is no king of mine.' "
"How many clans are you speaking of?"
"Two score, small and large. Flint, Wull, Norrey, Liddle ... win Old Flint and Big Bucket, the rest will follow."
"The Wull. He has the biggest belly in the mountains, and the most men. The Wulls fish the Bay of Ice and warn their little ones that ironmen will carry them off if they don't behave. To reach them Your Grace must pass through the Norrey's lands, however. They live the nearest to the Gift and have always been good friends to the Watch. I could give you guides."
"Could?" Stannis missed little. "Or will?"
"Will. You'll need them. And some sure-footed garrons too. The paths up there are little more than goat tracks."
"Goat tracks?" The king's eyes narrowed. "I speak of moving swiftly, and you waste my time with goat tracks?"
"When the Young Dragon conquered Dorne, he used a goat track to bypass the Dornish watchtowers on the Boneway."
"I know that tale as well, but Daeron made too much of it in that vain-glorious book of his. Ships won that war, not goat tracks. Oakenfist broke the Planky Town and swept halfway up the Greenblood whilst the main Dornish strength was engaged in the Prince's Pass."
Stannis drummed his fingers on the map. "These mountain lords will not hinder my passage?"
"Only with feasts. Each will try to outdo the others with his hospitality. My lord father said he never ate half so well as when visiting the clans."
"For three thousand men, I suppose I can endure some pipes and porridge," the king said, though his tone begrudged even that. Jon turned to Melisandre. "My lady, fair warning. The old gods are strong in those mountains. The clansmen will not suffer insults to their heart trees."
That seemed to amuse her. "Have no fear, Jon Snow, I will not trouble your mountain savages and their dark gods. My place is here with you and your brave brothers."
That was the last thing Jon Snow would have wanted, but before he could object, the king said, "Where would you have me lead these stalwarts if not against the Dreadfort?"
Jon glanced down at the map. "Deepwood Motte." He tapped it with a finger. "If Bolton means to fight the ironmen, so must you. Deepwood is a motte-and-bailey castle in the midst of thick forest, easy to creep up on unawares. A wooden castle, defended by an earthen dike and a palisade of logs. The going will be slower through the mountains, admittedly, but up there your host can move unseen, to emerge almost at the gates of Deepwood."
Stannis rubbed his jaw. "When Balon Greyjoy rose the first time, I beat the ironmen at sea, where they are fiercest. On land, taken unawares ... aye. I have won a victory over the wildlings and their
King-Beyond-the-Wall. If I can smash the ironmen as well, the north will know it has a king again."
And I will have a thousand wildlings, thought Jon, and no way to feed even half that number.
The Shy Maid moved through the fog like a blind man groping his way down an unfamiliar hall.
Septa Lemore was praying. The mists muffled the sound of her voice, making it seem small and hushed. Griff paced the deck, mail clinking softly beneath his wolfskin cloak. From time to time he touched his sword, as if to make certain that it still hung at his side. Rolly Duckfield was pushing at the starboard pole, Yandry at the larboard. Ysilla had the tiller.
"I do not like this place," Haldon Halfmaester muttered.
"Frightened of a little fog?" mocked Tyrion, though in truth there was quite a lot of fog. At the prow of the Shy Maid, Young Griff stood with the third pole, to push them away from hazards as they loomed up through the mists. The lanterns had been lit fore and aft, but the fog was so thick that all the dwarf could see from amidships was a light floating out ahead of him and another following behind. His own task was to tend the brazier and make certain that the fire did not go out.
"This is no common fog, Hugor Hill," Ysilla insisted. "It stinks of sorcery, as you would know if you had a nose to smell it. Many a voyager has been lost here, poleboats and pirates and great river galleys too. They wander forlorn through the mists, searching for a sun they cannot find until madness or hunger claim their lives. There are restless spirits in the air here and tormented souls below the water."
"There's one now," said Tyrion. Off to starboard a hand large enough to crush the boat was reaching up from the murky depths. Only the tops of two fingers broke the river's surface, but as the Shy Maid eased on past he could see the rest of the hand rippling below the water and a pale face looking up. Though his tone was light, he was uneasy. This was a bad place, rank with despair and death. Ysilla is not wrong. This fog is not natural. Something foul grew in the waters here, and festered in the air. Small wonder the stone men go mad.
"You should not make mock," warned Ysilla. "The whispering dead hate the warm and quick and ever seek for more damned souls to join them."
"I doubt they have a shroud my size." The dwarf stirred the coals with a poker.
"Hatred does not stir the stone men half so much as hunger."
Haldon Halfmaester had wrapped a yellow scarf around his mouth and nose, muffling his voice. "Nothing any sane man would want to eat grows in these fogs. Thrice each year the triarchs of Volantis send a galley upriver with provisions, but the mercy ships are oft late and sometimes bring more mouths than food."
Young Griff said, "There must be fish in the river."
"I would not eat any fish taken from these waters," said Ysilla. "I would not."
"We'd do well not to breathe the fog either," said Haldon. "Garin's Curse is all about us."
The only way not to breathe the fog is not to breathe. "Garin's Curse is only greyscale," said Tyrion. The curse was oft seen in children, especially in damp, cold climes. The afflicted flesh stiffened, calcified, and cracked, though the dwarf had read that greyscale's progress could be stayed by limes, mustard poultices, and scalding-hot baths (the maesters said) or by prayer, sacrifice, and fasting (the septons insisted). Then the disease passed, leaving its young victims disfigured but alive. Maesters and sep-tons alike agreed that children marked by greyscale could never be touched by the rarer mortal form of the affliction, nor by its terrible swift cousin, the grey plague. "Damp is said to be the culprit," he said. "Foul humors in the air. Not curses."
"The conquerors did not believe either, Hugor Hill," said Ysilla.
"The men of Volantis and Valyria hung Garin in a golden cage and made mock as he called upon his Mother to destroy them. But in the night the waters rose and drowned them, and from that day to this they have not rested. They are down there still beneath the water, they who were once the lords of fire. Their cold breath rises from the murk to make these fogs, and their flesh has turned as stony as their hearts."
The stump of Tyrion's nose was itching fiercely. He gave it a scratch. The old woman may be right. This place is no good. I feel as if I am back in the privy again, watching my father die. He would go mad as well if he had to spend his days in this grey soup whilst his flesh and bones turned to stone. Young Griff did not seem to share his misgivings. "Let them try and trouble us, we'll show them what we're made of."
"We are made of blood and bone, in the image of the Father and the Mother," said Septa Lemore. "Make no vainglorious boasts, I beg you. Pride is a grievous sin. The stone men were proud as well, and the Shrouded Lord was proudest of them all."
The heat from the glowing coals brought a flush to Tyrion's face. "Is there a Shrouded Lord? Or is he just some tale?"
"The Shrouded Lord has ruled these mists since Garin's day," said Yandry. "Some say that he himself is Garin, risen from his watery grave."
"The dead do not rise," insisted Haldon Halfmaester, "and no man lives a thousand years. Yes, there is a Shrouded Lord. There have been a score of them. When one dies another takes his place. This one is a corsair from the Basilisk Islands who believed the Rhoyne would offer richer pickings than the Summer Sea."
"Aye, I've heard that too," said Duck, "but there's another tale I like better. The one that says he's not like t'other stone men, that he started as a statue till a grey woman came out of the fog and kissed him with lips as cold as ice."