"Safe and starved," said a squat woman with a windburned face, a spearwife by the look of her.
"You want more food?" asked Jon. "The food's for fighters. Help us hold the Wall, and you'll eat as well as any crow." Or as poorly, when the food runs short.
A silence fell. The wildlings exchanged wary looks. "Eat, " the raven muttered. "Corn, corn. "
"Fight for you?" This voice was thickly accented. Sigorn, the young Magnar of Thenn, spoke the Common Tongue haltingly at best. "Not fight for you. Kill you better. Kill all you."
The raven flapped its wings. "Kill, kill. "
Sigorn's father, the old Magnar, had been crushed beneath the falling stair during his attack on Castle Black. I would feel the same if someone asked me to make common cause with the Lannisters, Jon told himself.
"Your father tried to kill us all," he reminded Sigorn. "The Magnar was a brave man, yet he failed. And if he had succeeded ... who would hold the Wall?" He turned away from the Thenns. "Winterfell's walls were strong as well, but Winterfell stands in ruins today, burned and broken. A wall is only as good as the men defending it."
An old man with a turnip cradled against his chest said, "You kill us, you starve us, now you want t' make us slaves."
A chunky red-faced man shouted assent. "I'd sooner go naked than wear one o' them black rags on my back."
One of the spearwives laughed. "Even your wife don't want to see you naked, Butts."
A dozen voices all began to speak at once. The Thenns were shouting in the Old Tongue. A little boy began to cry. Jon Snow waited until all of it had died down, then turned to Hairy Hal and said, "Hal, what was it that you told this woman?"
Hal looked confused. "About the food, you mean? An apple or an onion? That's all I said. They got to pick."
"You have to pick, " Jon Snow repeated. "All of you. No one is asking you to take our vows, and I do not care what gods you worship. My own gods are the old gods, the gods of the North, but you can keep the red god, or the Seven, or any other god who hears your prayers. It's spears we need. Bows. Eyes along the Wall.
"I will take any boy above the age of twelve who knows how to hold a spear or string a bow. I will take your old men, your wounded, and your cripples, even those who can no longer fight. There are other tasks they may be able to perform. Fletching arrows, milking goats, gathering fire-wood, mucking out our stables ... the work is endless. And yes, I will take your women too. I have no need of blushing maidens looking to be protected, but I will take as many spearwives as will come."
"And girls?" a girl asked. She looked as young as Arya had, the last time Jon had seen her.
"Sixteen and older."
"You're taking boys as young as twelve."
Down in the Seven Kingdoms boys of twelve were often pages or squires; many had been training at arms for years. Girls of twelve were children. These are wildlings, though. "As you will. Boys and girls as young as twelve. But only those who know how to obey an order. That goes for all of you. I will never ask you to kneel to me, but I will set captains over you, and serjeants who will tell you when to rise and when to sleep, where to eat, when to drink, what to wear, when to draw your swords and loose your arrows. The men of the Night's Watch serve for life. I will not ask that of you, but so long as you are on the Wall you will be under my command. Disobey an order, and I'll have your head off. Ask my brothers if I won't. They've seen me do it."
"Off, " screamed the Old Bear's raven. "Off, off, off. "
"The choice is yours," Jon Snow told them. "Those who want to help us hold the Wall, return to Castle Black with me and I'll see you armed and fed. The rest of you, get your turnips and your onions and crawl back inside your holes."
The girl was the first to come forward. "I can fight. My mother was a spearwife." Jon nodded. She may not even be twelve, he thought, as she squirmed between a pair of old men, but he was not about to turn away his only recruit.
A pair of striplings followed her, boys no older than fourteen. Next a scarred man with a missing eye. "I seen them too, the dead ones. Even crows are better'n that." A tall spearwife, an old man on crutches, a moon-faced boy with a withered arm, a young man whose red hair reminded Jon of Ygritte.
And then Halleck. "I don't like you, crow," he growled, "but I never liked the Mance neither, no more'n my sister did. Still, we fought for him. Why not fight for you?"
The dam broke then. Halleck was a man of note. Mance was not wrong. "Free folk don't follow names, or little cloth animals sewn on a tunic," the King-Beyond-the-Wall had told him. "They won't dance for coins, they don't care how you style yourself or what that chain of office means or who your grandsire was. They follow strength. They follow the man."
Halleck's cousins followed Halleck, then one of Harma's
banner-bearers, then men who'd fought with her, then others who had heard tales of their prowess. Greybeards and green boys, fighting men in their prime, wounded men and cripples, a good score of spearwives, even three Horn-foot men.
But no Thenns. The Magnar turned and vanished back into the tunnels, and his bronze-clad minions followed hard at his heels.
By the time the last withered apple had been handed out, the wagons were crowded with wildlings, and they were sixty-three stronger than when the column had set out from Castle Black that morning. "What will you do with them?" Bowen Marsh asked Jon on the ride back up the kingsroad.
"Train them, arm then, and split them up. Send them where they're needed. Eastwatch, the Shadow Tower, Icemark, Greyguard. I mean to open three more forts as well."
The Lord Steward glanced back. "Women too? Our brothers are not accustomed to having women amongst them, my lord. Their vows ... there will be fights, rapes ..."
"These women have knives and know how to use them."
"And the first time one of these spearwives slits the throat of one of our brothers, what then?"
"We will have lost a man," said Jon, "but we have just gained sixty-three. You're good at counting, my lord. Correct me if I'm wrong, but my reckoning leaves us sixty-two ahead."
Marsh was unconvinced. "You've added sixty-three more mouths, my lord ... but how many are fighters, and whose side will they fight on? If it's the Others at the gates, most like they'll stand with us, I grant you ...
but if it's Tormund Giantsbane or the Weeping Man come calling with ten thousand howling killers, what then?"
"Then we'll know. So let us hope it never comes to that."
He dreamt of his lord father and the Shrouded Lord. He dreamt that they were one and the same, and when his father wrapped stone arms around him and bent to give him his grey kiss, he woke with his mouth dry and rusty with the taste of blood and his heart hammering in his chest.
"Our dead dwarf has returned to us," Haldon said.
Tyrion shook his head to clear away the webs of dream. The Sorrows. I was lost in the Sorrows. "I am not dead."
"That remains to be seen." The Halfmaester stood over him. "Duck, be a fine fowl and boil some broth for our little friend here. He must be famished."
He was on the Shy Maid, Tyrion saw, under a scratchy blanket that smelled of vinegar. The Sorrows are behind us. It was just a dream I dreamed as I was drowning. "Why do I stink of vinegar?"
"Lemore has been washing you with it. Some say it helps prevent the greyscale. I am inclined to doubt that, but there was no harm in trying. It was Lemore who forced the water from your lungs after Griff had pulled you up. You were as cold as ice, and your lips were blue. Yandry said we ought to throw you back, but the lad forbade it."
The prince. Memory came rushing back: the stone man reaching out with cracked grey hands, the blood seeping from his knuckles. He was heavy as a boulder, pulling me under. "Griff brought me up?" He must hate me, or he would have let me die. "How long have I been sleeping? What place is this?"
"Selhorys." Haldon produced a small knife from his sleeve.
"Here," he said, tossing it underhand at Tyrion.
The dwarf flinched. The knife landed between his feet and stood quivering in the deck. He plucked it out. "What's this?"
"Take off your boots. Prick each of your toes and fingers."
"That sounds ... painful."
"I hope so. Do it."
Tyrion yanked off one boot and then the other, peeled down his hose, squinted at his toes. It seemed to him they looked no better or worse than usual. He poked gingerly at one big toe.
"Harder," urged Haldon Halfmaester.
"Do you want me to draw blood?"
"If need be."
"I'll have a scab on every toe."
"The purpose of the exercise is not to count your toes. I want to see you wince. So long as the pricks hurt, you are safe. It is only when you cannot feel the blade that you will have cause to fear."
Greyscale. Tyrion grimaced. He stabbed another toe, cursed as a bead of blood welled up around the knife's point. "That hurt. Are you happy?"
"Dancing with joy."
"Your feet smell worse than mine, Yollo." Duck had a cup of broth.
"Griff warned you not to lay hands upon the stone men."
"Aye, but he forgot to warn the stone men not to lay their hands upon me."
"As you prick, look for patches of dead grey skin, for nails beginning to turn black," said Haldon. "If you see such signs, do not hesitate. Better to lose a toe than a foot. Better to lose an arm than spend your days wailing on the Bridge of Dream. Now the other foot, if you please. Then your fingers."
The dwarf recrossed his stunted legs and began to prick the other set of toes. "Shall I prick my prick as well?"
"It would not hurt."
"It would not hurt you is what you mean. Though I had as well slice it off for all the use I make of it."
"Feel free. We will have it tanned and stuffed and sell it for a fortune. A dwarf's c**k has magical powers."
"I have been telling all the women that for years." Tyrion drove the dagger's point into the ball of his thumb, watched the blood bead up, sucked it away. "How long must I continue to torture myself? When will we be certain that I'm clean?"
"Truly?" said the Halfmaester. "Never. You swallowed half the river. You may be going grey even now, turning to stone from inside out, starting with your heart and lungs. If so, pricking your toes and bathing in vinegar will not save you. When you're done, come have some broth."
The broth was good, though Tyrion noted that the Halfmaester kept the table between them as he ate. The Shy Maid was moored to a weathered pier on the east bank of the Rhoyne. Two piers down, a Volantene river galley was discharging soldiers. Shops and stalls and storehouses huddled beneath a sandstone wall. The towers and domes of the city were visible beyond it, reddened by the light of the setting sun.
No, not a city. Selhorys was still accounted a mere town, and was ruled from Old Volantis. This was not Westeros.
Lemore emerged on deck with the prince in tow. When she saw Tyrion, she rushed across the deck to hug him. "The Mother is merciful. We have prayed for you, Hugor."