Bowen Marsh's cheeks were red with cold. "We should never have sent out rangers."
"This is not the time and place to pick at that wound. Not here, my lord. Not now." To the men struggling with the spears Snow said, "Take the heads and burn them. Leave nothing but bare bone." Only then did he seem to notice Melisandre. "My lady. Walk with me, if you would."
At last. "If it please the lord commander."
As they walked beneath the Wall, she slipped her arm through his. Morgan and Merrel went before them, Ghost came prowling at their heels. The priestess did not speak, but she slowed her pace deliberately, and where she walked the ice began to drip. He will not fail to notice that. Beneath the iron grating of a murder hole Snow broke the silence, as she had known he would. "What of the other six?"
"I have not seen them," Melisandre said.
"Will you look?"
"Of course, my lord."
"We've had a raven from Ser Denys Mallister at the Shadow
Tower," Jon Snow told her. "His men have seen fires in the mountains on the far side of the Gorge. Wildlings massing, Ser Denys believes. He thinks they are going to try to force the Bridge of Skulls again."
"Some may." Could the skulls in her vision have signified this bridge? Somehow Melisandre did not think so. "If it comes, that attack will be no more than a persion. I saw towers by the sea, submerged beneath a black and bloody tide. That is where the heaviest blow will fall."
Was it? Melisandre had seen Eastwatch-by-the-Sea with King Stannis. That was where His Grace left Queen Selyse and their daughter Shireen when he assembled his knights for the march to Castle Black. The towers in her fire had been different, but that was oft the way with visions. "Yes. Eastwatch, my lord."
She spread her hands. "On the morrow. In a moon's turn. In a year. And it may be that if you act, you may avert what I have seen entirely."
Else what would be the point of visions?
"Good," said Snow.
The crowd of crows beyond the gate had swollen to two score by the time they emerged from beneath the Wall. The men pressed close about them. Melisandre knew a few by name: the cook Three-Finger Hobb, Mully with his greasy orange hair, the dim-witted boy called Owen the Oaf, the drunkard Septon Celladar.
"Is it true, m'lord?" said Three-Finger Hobb. "Who is it?" asked Owen the Oaf. "Not Dywen, is it?"
"Nor Garth," said the queen's man she knew as Alf of Runnymudd, one of the first to exchange his seven false gods for the truth of R'hllor.
"Garth's too clever for them wildlings."
"How many?" Mully asked.
"Three," Jon told them. "Black Jack, Hairy Hal, and Garth."
Alf of Runnymudd let out a howl loud enough to wake sleepers in the Shadow Tower. "Put him to bed and get some mulled wine into him," Jon told Three-Finger Hobb.
"Lord Snow," Melisandre said quietly. "Will you come with me to the King's Tower? I have more to share with you."
He looked at her face for a long moment with those cold grey eyes of his. His right hand closed, opened, closed again. "As you wish. Edd, take Ghost back to my chambers."
Melisandre took that as a sign and dismissed her own guard as well. They crossed the yard together, just the two of them. The snow fell all around them. She walked as close to Jon Snow as she dared, close enough to feel the mistrust pouring off him like a black fog. He does not love me, will never love me, but he will make use of me. Well and good. Melisandre had danced the same dance with Stannis Baratheon, back in the beginning. In truth, the young lord commander and her king had more in common than either one would ever be willing to admit. Stannis had been a younger son living in the shadow of his elder brother, just as Jon Snow, bastard-born, had always been eclipsed by his trueborn sibling, the fallen hero men had called the Young Wolf. Both men were unbelievers by nature, mistrustful, suspicious. The only gods they truly worshiped were honor and duty.
"You have not asked about your sister," Melisandre said, as they climbed the spiral steps of the King's Tower.
"I told you. I have no sister. We put aside our kin when we say our words. I cannot help Arya, much as I - "
He broke off as they stepped inside her chambers. The wildling was within, seated at her board, spreading butter on a ragged chunk of warm brown bread with his dagger. He had donned the bone armor, she was pleased to see. The broken giant's skull that was his helm rested on the window seat behind him.
Jon Snow tensed. "You."
"Lord Snow." The wildling grinned at them through a mouth of brown and broken teeth. The ruby on his wrist glimmered in the morning light like a dim red star.
"What are you doing here?"
"Breaking my fast. You're welcome to share."
"I'll not break bread with you."
"Your loss. The loaf's still warm. Hobb can do that much, at least."
The wildling ripped off a bite. "I could visit you as easily, my lord. Those guards at your door are a bad jape. A man who has climbed the Wall half a hundred times can climb in a window easy enough. But what good would come of killing you? The crows would only choose someone worse." He chewed, swallowed. "I heard about your rangers. You should have sent me with them."
"So you could betray them to the Weeper?"
"Are we talking about betrayals? What was the name of that wildling wife of yours, Snow? Ygritte, wasn't it?" The wildling turned to Melisandre. "I will need horses. Half a dozen good ones. And this is nothing I can do alone. Some of the spearwives penned up at Mole's Town should serve. Women would be best for this. The girl's more like to trust them, and they will help me carry off a certain ploy I have in mind."
"What is he talking about?" Lord Snow asked her. "Your sister."
Melisandre put her hand on his arm. "You cannot help her, but he can."
Snow wrenched his arm away. "I think not. You do not know this creature. Rattleshirt could wash his hands a hundred times a day and he'd still have blood beneath his nails. He'd be more like to rape and murder Arya than to save her. No. If this was what you have seen in your fires, my lady, you must have ashes in your eyes. If he tries to leave Castle Black without my leave, I'll take his head off myself."
He leaves me no choice. So be it. "Devan, leave us," she said, and the squire slipped away and closed the door behind him.
Melisandre touched the ruby at her neck and spoke a word.
The sound echoed queerly from the corners of the room and twisted like a worm inside their ears. The wildling heard one word, the crow another. Neither was the word that left her lips. The ruby on the wildling's wrist darkened, and the wisps of light and shadow around him writhed and faded. The bones remained - the rattling ribs, the claws and teeth along his arms and shoulders, the great yellowed collarbone across his shoulders. The broken giant's skull remained a broken giant's skull, yellowed and cracked, grinning its stained and savage grin.
But the widow's peak dissolved. The brown mustache, the knobby chin, the sallow yellowed flesh and small dark eyes, all melted. Grey fingers crept through long brown hair. Laugh lines appeared at the corners of his mouth. All at once he was bigger than before, broader in the chest and shoulders, long-legged and lean, his face clean-shaved and wind-burnt. Jon Snow's grey eyes grew wider. "Mance?"
"Lord Snow." Mance Rayder did not smile. "She burned you. "
"She burned the Lord of Bones."
Jon Snow turned to Melisandre. "What sorcery is this?"
"Call it what you will. Glamor, seeming, illusion. R'hllor is Lord of Light, Jon Snow, and it is given to his servants to weave with it, as others weave with thread."
Mance Rayder chuckled. "I had my doubts as well, Snow, but why not let her try? It was that, or let Stannis roast me."
"The bones help," said Melisandre. "The bones remember. The strongest glamors are built of such things. A dead man's boots, a hank of hair, a bag of fingerbones. With whispered words and prayer, a man's shadow can be drawn forth from such and draped about another like a cloak. The wearer's essence does not change, only his seeming."
She made it sound a simple thing, and easy. They need never know how difficult it had been, or how much it had cost her. That was a lesson Melisandre had learned long before Asshai; the more effortless the sorcery appears, the more men fear the sorcerer. When the flames had licked at Rattleshirt, the ruby at her throat had grown so hot that she had feared her own flesh might start to smoke and blacken. Thankfully Lord Snow had delivered her from that agony with his arrows. Whilst Stannis had seethed at the defiance, she had shuddered with relief.
"Our false king has a prickly manner," Melisandre told Jon Snow,
"but he will not betray you. We hold his son, remember. And he owes you his very life."
"Me?" Snow sounded startled. "Who else, my lord? Only his life's blood could pay for his crimes, your laws said, and Stannis Baratheon is not a man to go against the law ... but as you said so sagely, the laws of men end at the Wall. I told you that the Lord of Light would hear your prayers. You wanted a way to save your little sister and still hold fast to the honor that means so much to you, to the vows you swore before your wooden god." She pointed with a pale finger. "There he stands, Lord Snow. Arya's deliverance. A gift from the Lord of Light ... and me."
He heard the girls first, barking as they raced for home. The drum of hoofbeats echoing off flagstone jerked him to his feet, chains rattling. The one between his ankles was no more than a foot long, shortening his stride to a shuffle. It was hard to move quickly that way, but he tried as best he could, hopping and clanking from his pallet. Ramsay Bolton had returned and would want his Reek on hand to serve him.
Outside, beneath a cold autumnal sky, the hunters were pouring through the gates. Ben Bones led the way, with the girls baying and barking all around him. Behind came Skinner, Sour Alyn, and Damon Dance-for-Me with his long greased whip, then the Walders riding the grey colts Lady Dustin had given them. His lordship himself rode Blood, a red stallion with a temper to match his own. He was laughing. That could be very good or very bad, Reek knew.
The dogs were on him before he could puzzle out which, drawn to his scent. The dogs were fond of Reek; he slept with them oft as not, and sometimes Ben Bones let him share their supper. The pack raced across the flagstones barking, circling him, jumping up to lick his filthy face, nipping at his legs. Helicent caught his left hand between her teeth and worried it so fiercely Reek feared he might lose two more fingers. Red Jeyne slammed into his chest and knocked him off his feet. She was lean, hard muscle, where Reek was loose, grey skin and brittle bones, a white-haired starveling. The riders were dismounting by the time he pushed Red Jeyne off and struggled to his knees. Two dozen horsemen had gone out and two dozen had returned, which meant the search had been a failure. That was bad. Ramsay did not like the taste of failure. He will want to hurt someone. Of late, his lord had been forced to restrain himself, for Barrowton was full of men House Bolton needed, and Ramsay knew to be careful around the Dustins and Ryswells and his fellow lordlings. With them he was always courteous and smiling. What he was behind closed doors was something else.