"Emmett, find some armor for him. I want him in steel, not old bones." Once clad in mail and plate, the Lord of Bones seemed to stand a little straighter. He seemed taller too, his shoulders thicker and more powerful than Jon would have thought. It' s the armor, not the man, he told himself. Even Sam could appear almost formidable, clad head to heel in Donal Noye' s steel. The wildling waved away the shield Horse offered him. Instead he asked for a two-handed sword. "There'
s a sweet sound,"
slashing at the air. "Flap closer, Snow. I mean to make your feathers fly."
Jon rushed him hard.
Rattleshirt took a step backwards and met the charge with a two-handed slash. If Jon had not interposed his shield, it might have staved his breast-plate in and broken half his ribs. The force of the blow staggered him for a moment and sent a solid jolt up his arm. He hits harder than I would have thought. His quickness was another unpleasant surprise. They circled round each other, trading blow for blow. The Lord of Bones gave as good as he was getting. By rights the two-handed greatsword should have been a deal more cumbersome than Jon's longsword, but the wildling wielded it with blinding speed.
Iron Emmett's fledglings cheered their lord commander at the start, but the relentless speed of Rattleshirt's attack soon beat them down to silence. He cannot keep this up for long, Jon told himself as he stopped another blow. The impact made him grunt. Even dulled, the greatsword cracked his pinewood shield and bent the iron rim. He will tire soon. He must. Jon slashed at the wildling's face, and Rattleshirt pulled back his head. He hacked down at Rattleshirt's calf, only to have him deftly leap the blade. The greatsword crashed down onto Jon's shoulder, hard enough to ding his pouldron and numb the arm beneath. Jon backed away. The Lord of Bones came after, chortling. He has no shield, Jon reminded himself, and that monster sword' s too cumbersome for parries. I should be landing two blows for every one of his.
Somehow he wasn't, though, and the blows he did land were having no effect. The wildling always seemed to be moving away or sliding sideways, so Jon's longsword glanced off a shoulder or an arm. Before long he found himself giving more ground, trying to avoid the other's crashing cuts and failing half the time. His shield had been reduced to kindling. He shook it off his arm. Sweat was running down his face and stinging his eyes beneath his helm. He is too strong and too quick, he realized, and with that greatsword he has weight and reach on me. It would have been a different fight if Jon had been armed with Longclaw, but ...
His chance came on Rattleshirt's next backswing. Jon threw himself forward, bulling into the other man, and they went down together, legs entangled. Steel slammed on steel. Both men lost their swords as they rolled on the hard ground. The wildling drove a knee between Jon's legs. Jon lashed out with a mailed fist. Somehow Rattleshirt ended up on top, with Jon's head in his hands. He smashed it against the ground, then wrenched his visor open. "If I had me a dagger, you'd be less an eye by now," he snarled, before Horse and Iron Emmett dragged him off the lord commander's chest. "Let go o' me, you bloody crows," he roared. Jon struggled to one knee. His head was ringing, and his mouth was full of blood. He spat it out and said, "Well fought."
"You flatter yourself, crow. I never broke a sweat."
"Next time you will," said Jon. Dolorous Edd helped him to his feet and unbuckled his helm. It had acquired several deep dents that had not been there when he'd donned it. "Release him." Jon tossed the helm to Hop-Robin, who dropped it.
"My lord," said Iron Emmett, "he threatened your life, we all heard. He said that if he had a dagger - "
"He does have a dagger. Right there on his belt." There is always someone quicker and stronger, Ser Rodrik had once told Jon and Robb. He'
s the man you want to face in the yard before you need to face his like upon a battlefield.
"Lord Snow?" a soft voice said.
He turned to find Clydas standing beneath the broken archway, a parchment in his hand. "From Stannis?" Jon had been hoping for some word from the king. The Night's Watch took no part, he knew, and it should not matter to him which king emerged triumphant. Somehow it did. "Is it Deepwood?"
"No, my lord." Clydas thrust the parchment forward. It was tightly rolled and sealed, with a button of hard pink wax. Only the Dreadfort uses pink sealing wax. Jon ripped off his gauntlet, took the letter, cracked the seal. When he saw the signature, he forgot the battering Rattleshirt had given him. Ramsay Bolton, Lord of the Hornwood, it read, in a huge, spiky hand. The brown ink came away in flakes when Jon brushed it with his thumb. Beneath Bolton's signature, Lord Dustin, Lady Cerwyn, and four Ryswells had appended their own marks and seals. A cruder hand had drawn the giant of House Umber. "Might we know what it says, my lord?" asked Iron Emmett.
Jon saw no reason not to tell him. "Moat Cailin is taken. The flayed corpses of the ironmen have been nailed to posts along the kingsroad. Roose Bolton summons all leal lords to Barrowton, to affirm their loyalty to the Iron Throne and celebrate his son's wedding to ..." His heart seemed to stop for a moment. No, that is not possible. She died in King'
s Landing, with
"Lord Snow?" Clydas peered at him closely with his dim pink eyes.
"Are you ... unwell? You seem ..."
"He's to marry Arya Stark. My little sister." Jon could almost see her in that moment, long-faced and gawky, all knobby knees and sharp elbows, with her dirty face and tangled hair. They would wash the one and comb the other, he did not doubt, but he could not imagine Arya in a wedding gown, nor Ramsay Bolton's bed. No matter how afraid she is, she will not show it. If he tries to lay a hand on her, she' ll fight him.
"Your sister," Iron Emmett said, "how old is ..."
By now she' d be eleven, Jon thought. Still a child. "I have no sister. Only brothers. Only you." Lady Catelyn would have rejoiced to hear those words, he knew. That did not make them easier to say. His fingers closed around the parchment. Would that they could crush Ramsay Bolton' s throat as easily.
Clydas cleared his throat. "Will there be an answer?"
Jon shook his head and walked away.
By nightfall the bruises that Rattleshirt had given him had turned purple. "They'll go yellow before they fade away," he told Mormont's raven. "I'll look as sallow as the Lord of Bones."
"Bones, " the bird agreed. "Bones, bones. "
He could hear the faint murmur of voices coming from outside, although the sound was too weak to make out words. They sound a thousand leagues away. It was Lady Melisandre and her followers at their nightfire. Every night at dusk the red woman led her followers in their twilight prayer, asking her red god to see them through the dark. For the night is dark and full of terrors. With Stannis and most of the queen's men gone, her flock was much diminished; half a hundred of the free folk up from Mole's Town, the handful of guards the king had left her, perhaps a dozen black brothers who had taken her red god for their own.
Jon felt as stiff as a man of sixty years. Dark dreams, he thought, and guilt. His thoughts kept returning to Arya. There is no way I can help her. I put all kin aside when I said my words. If one of my men told me his sister was in peril, I would tell him that was no concern of his. Once a man had said the words his blood was black. Black as a bastard' s heart. He'd had Mikken make a sword for Arya once, a bravo's blade, made small to fit her hand. Needle. He wondered if she still had it. Stick them with the pointy end, he'd told her, but if she tried to stick the Bastard, it could mean her life.
"Snow, " muttered Lord Mormont's raven. "Snow, snow. "
Suddenly he could not suffer it a moment longer.
He found Ghost outside his door, gnawing on the bone of an ox to get at the marrow. "When did you get back?" The direwolf got to his feet, abandoning the bone to come padding after Jon.
Mully and Kegs stood inside the doors, leaning on their spears. "A cruel cold out there, m'lord," warned Mully through his tangled orange beard. "Will you be out long?"
"No. I just need a breath of air." Jon stepped out into the night. The sky was full of stars, and the wind was gusting along the Wall. Even the moon looked cold; there were goosebumps all across its face. Then the first gust caught him, slicing through his layers of wool and leather to set his teeth to chattering. He stalked across the yard, into the teeth of that wind. His cloak flapped loudly from his shoulders. Ghost came after. Where am I going? What am I doing? Castle Black was still and silent, its halls and towers dark. My seat, Jon Snow reflected. My hall, my home, my command. A ruin.
In the shadow of the Wall, the direwolf brushed up against his fingers. For half a heartbeat the night came alive with a thousand smells, and Jon Snow heard the crackle of the crust breaking on a patch of old snow. Someone was behind him, he realized suddenly. Someone who smelled warm as a summer day.
When he turned he saw Ygritte.
She stood beneath the scorched stones of the Lord Commander's Tower, cloaked in darkness and in memory. The light of the moon was in her hair, her red hair kissed by fire. When he saw that, Jon's heart leapt into his mouth. "Ygritte," he said.
"Lord Snow." The voice was Melisandre's.
Surprise made him recoil from her. "Lady Melisandre." He took a step backwards. "I mistook you for someone else." At night all robes are grey. Yet suddenly hers were red. He did not understand how he could have taken her for Ygritte. She was taller, thinner, older, though the moonlight washed years from her face. Mist rose from her nostrils, and from pale hands naked to the night. "You will freeze your fingers off," Jon warned.
"If that is the will of R'hllor. Night's powers cannot touch one whose heart is bathed in god's holy fire."
"You heart does not concern me. Just your hands."
"The heart is all that matters. Do not despair, Lord Snow. Despair is a weapon of the enemy, whose name may not be spoken. Your sister is not lost to you."
"I have no sister." The words were knives. What do you know of my heart, priestess? What do you know of my sister?
Melisandre seemed amused. "What is her name, this little sister that you do not have?"
"Arya." His voice was hoarse. "My half-sister, truly ..."
"... for you are bastard born. I had not forgotten. I have seen your sister in my fires, fleeing from this marriage they have made for her. Coming here, to you. A girl in grey on a dying horse, I have seen it plain as day. It has not happened yet, but it will." She gazed at Ghost. "May I touch your ... wolf?"
The thought made Jon uneasy. "Best not."
"He will not harm me. You call him Ghost, yes?"
"Yes, but ..."
"Ghost. " Melisandre made the word a song.
The direwolf padded toward her. Wary, he stalked about her in a circle, sniffing. When she held out her hand he smelled that too, then shoved his nose against her fingers.
Jon let out a white breath. "He is not always so ..."
"... warm? Warmth calls to warmth, Jon Snow." Her eyes were two red stars, shining in the dark. At her throat, her ruby gleamed, a third eye glowing brighter than the others. Jon had seen Ghost's eyes blazing red the same way, when they caught the light just right. "Ghost, " he called.