he told Jon, softly.
"In the grove."
Jon brought the riders to a halt. "How many?"
"I counted nine. No guards. Some dead, might be, or sleeping. Most look to be women. One child, but there's a giant too. Just the one that I saw. They got a fire burning, smoke drifting through the trees. Fools."
Nine, and I have seven-and-ten. Four of his were green boys, though, and none were giants.
Jon was not of a mind to fall back to the Wall, however. If the wildlings are still alive, it may be we can bring them in. And if they are dead, well ... a corpse or two could be of use. "We'
ll continue on foot,"
dropping lightly to the frozen ground. The snow was ankle deep. "Rory, Pate, stay with the horses." He might have given that duty to the recruits, but they would need to be blooded soon enough. This was as good a time as any. "Spread out and form a crescent. I want to close in on the grove from three sides. Keep the men to your right and left in sight, so the gaps do not widen. The snow should muffle our steps. Less chance of blood if we take them unawares."
Night was falling fast. The shafts of sunlight had vanished when the last thin slice of the sun was swallowed beneath the western woods. The pink snow drifts were going white again, the color leaching out of them as the world darkened. The evening sky had turned the faded grey of an old cloak that had been washed too many times, and the first shy stars were coming out.
Ahead he glimpsed a pale white trunk that could only be a weirwood, crowned with a head of dark red leaves. Jon Snow reached back and pulled Longclaw from his sheath. He looked to right and left, gave Satin and Horse a nod, watched them pass it on to the men beyond. They rushed the grove together, kicking through drifts of old snow with no sound but their breathing. Ghost ran with them, a white shadow at Jon's side. The weirwoods rose in a circle around the edges of the clearing. There were nine, all roughly of the same age and size. Each one had a face carved into it, and no two faces were alike. Some were smiling, some were screaming, some were shouting at him. In the deepening glow their eyes looked black, but in daylight they would be blood-red, Jon knew. Eyes like Ghost' s.
The fire in the center of the grove was a small sad thing, ashes and embers and a few broken branches burning slow and smoky. Even then, it had more life than the wildlings huddled near it. Only one of them reacted when Jon stepped from the brush. That was the child, who began to wail, clutching at his mother's ragged cloak. The woman raised her eyes and gasped. By then the grove was ringed by rangers, sliding past the bone-white trees, steel glinting in black-gloved hands, poised for slaughter. The giant was the last to notice them. He had been asleep, curled up by the fire, but something woke him - the child's cry, the sound of snow crunching beneath black boots, a sudden indrawn breath. When he stirred it was as if a boulder had come to life. He heaved himself into a sitting position with a snort, pawing at his eyes with hands as big as hams to rub the sleep away ... until he saw Iron Emmett, his sword shining in his hand. Roaring, he came leaping to his feet, and one of those huge hands closed around a maul and jerked it up.
Ghost showed his teeth in answer. Jon grabbed the wolf by the scruff of the neck. "We want no battle here."
His men could bring the giant down,
he knew, but not without cost. Once blood was shed, the wildlings would join the fray. Most or all would die here, and some of his own brothers too.
"This is a holy place. Yield, and we - "
The giant bellowed again, a sound that shook the leaves in the trees, and slammed his maul against the ground. The shaft of it was six feet of gnarled oak, the head a stone as big as a loaf of bread. The impact made the ground shake. Some of the other wildlings went scrambling for their own weapons.
Jon Snow was about to reach for Longclaw when Leathers spoke, from the far side of the grove. His words sounded gruff and guttural, but Jon heard the music in it and recognized the Old Tongue. Leathers spoke for a long while. When he was done, the giant answered. It sounded like growling, interspersed with grunts, and Jon could not understand a word of it. But Leathers pointed at the trees and said something else, and the giant pointed at the trees, ground his teeth, and dropped his maul.
"It's done," said Leathers. "They want no fight."
"Well done. What did you tell him?"
"That they were our gods too. That we came to pray."
"We shall. Put away your steel, all of you. We will have no blood shed here tonight."
Nine, Tom Barleycorn had said, and nine there were, but two were dead and one so weak he might have died by morning. The six who remained included a mother and child, two old men, a wounded Thenn in battered bronze, and one of the Hornfoot folk, his bare feet so badly frostbitten that Jon knew at a glance he would never walk again. Most had been strangers to one another when they came to the grove, he learned subsequently; when Stannis broke Mance Rayder's host, they had fled into the woods to escape the carnage, wandered for a time, lost friends and kin to cold and starvation, and finally washed up here, too weak and weary to go on. "The gods are here," one of the old men said. "This was as good a place to die as any."
"The Wall is only a few hours south of here," said Jon. "Why not seek shelter there? Others yielded. Even Mance."
The wildlings exchanged looks. Finally one said, "We heard stories. The crows burned all them that yielded."
"Even Mance hisself," the woman added.
Melisandre, Jon thought, you and your red god have much and more to answer for. "All those who wish are welcome to return with us. There is food and shelter at Castle Black, and the Wall to keep you safe from the things that haunt these woods. You have my word, no one will burn."
"A crow's word," the woman said, hugging her child close, "but who's to say that you can keep it? Who are you?"
"Lord Commander of the Night's Watch, and a son of Eddard Stark of Winterfell." Jon turned to Tom Barleycorn. "Have Rory and Pate bring up the horses. I do not mean to stay here one moment longer than we must."
"As you say, m'lord."
One last thing remained before they could depart: the thing that they had come for. Iron Emmett called forth his charges, and as the rest of the company watched from a respectful distance, they knelt before the weir-woods. The last light of day was gone by then; the only light came from the stars above and the faint red glow of the dying fire in the center of the grove.
With their black hoods and thick black cowls, the six might have been carved from shadow. Their voices rose together, small against the vastness of the night. "Night gathers, and now my watch begins," they said, as thousands had said before them. Satin's voice was sweet as song, Horse's hoarse and halting, Arron's a nervous squeak. "It shall not end until my death."
May those deaths be long in coming. Jon Snow sank to one knee in the snow. Gods of my fathers, protect these men. And Arya too, my little sister, wherever she might be. I pray you, let Mance find her and bring her safe to me.
"I shall take no wife, hold no lands, father no children," the recruits promised, in voices that echoed back through years and centuries. "I shall wear no crowns and win no glory. I shall live and die at my post."
Gods of the wood, grant me the strength to do the same, Jon Snow prayed silently. Give me the wisdom to know what must be done and the courage to do it.
"I am the sword in the darkness," said the six, and it seemed to Jon as though their voices were changing, growing stronger, more certain. "I am the watcher on the walls. I am the fire that burns against the cold, the light that brings the dawn, the horn that wakes the sleepers, the shield that guards the realms of men."
The shield that guards the realms of men. Ghost nuzzled up against his shoulder, and Jon draped an arm around him. He could smell Horse's unwashed breeches, the sweet scent Satin combed into his beard, the rank sharp smell of fear, the giant's overpowering musk. He could hear the beating of his own heart. When he looked across the grove at the woman with her child, the two greybeards, the Hornfoot man with his maimed feet, all he saw was men.
"I pledge my life and honor to the Night's Watch, for this night and all the nights to come."
Jon Snow was the first onto his feet. "Rise now as men of the Night'
s Watch." He gave Horse a hand to pull him up.
The wind was rising. It was time to go.
The journey back took much longer than the journey to the grove. The giant's pace was a ponderous one, despite the length and girth of those legs, and he was forever stopping to knock snow off low-hanging limbs with his maul. The woman rode double with Rory, her son with Tom Barleycorn, the old men with Horse and Satin. The Thenn was frightened of the horses, however, and preferred to limp along despite his wounds. The Hornfoot man could not sit a saddle and had to be tied over the back of a garron like a sack of grain; so too the pale-faced crone with the stick-thin limbs, whom they had not been able to rouse.
They did the same with the two corpses, to the puzzlement of Iron Emmett. "They will only slow us, my lord," he said to Jon. "We should chop them up and burn them."
"No," said Jon. "Bring them. I have a use for them."
They had no moon to guide them home, and only now and then a patch of stars. The world was black and white and still. It was a long, slow, endless trek. The snow clung to their boots and breeches, and the wind rattled the pines and made their cloaks snap and swirl. Jon glimpsed the red wanderer above, watching them through the leafless branches of great trees as they made their way beneath. The Thief, the free folk called it. The best time to steal a woman was when the Thief was in the Moonmaid, Ygritte had always claimed. She never mentioned the best time to steal a giant. Or two dead men.
It was almost dawn before they saw the Wall again.
A sentry's horn greeted them as they approached, sounding from on high like the cry of some huge, deep-throated bird, a single long blast that meant rangers returning. Big Liddle unslung his own warhorn and gave answer. At the gate, they had to wait a few moments before Dolorous Edd Tollett appeared to slide back the bolts and swing open the iron bars. When Edd caught sight of the ragged band of wildlings, he pursed his lips and gave the giant a long look. "Might need some butter to slide that one through the tunnel, m'lord. Shall I send someone to the larder?"
"Oh, I think he'll fit. Unbuttered."
So he did ... on hands and knees, crawling. A big boy, this one. Fourteen feet, at least. Even bigger than Mag the Mighty. Mag had died beneath this very ice, locked in mortal struggle with Donal Noye. A good man. The Watch has lost too many good men. Jon took Leathers aside.
"Take charge of him. You speak his tongue. See that he is fed and find him a warm place by the fire. Stay with him. See that no one provokes him."
"Aye." Leathers hesitated. "M'lord."
The living wildlings Jon sent off to have their wounds and frostbites tended. Some hot food and warm clothes would restore most of them, he hoped, though the Hornfoot man was like to lose both feet. The corpses he consigned to the ice cells.
Clydas had come and gone, Jon noted as he was hanging his cloak on the peg beside the door. A letter had been left on the table in his solar. Eastwatch or the Shadow Tower, he assumed at first glance. But the wax was gold, not black. The seal showed a stag's head within a flaming heart. Stannis. Jon cracked the hardened wax, flattened the roll of parchment, read. A maester' s hand, but the king' s words. Stannis had taken Deepwood Motte, and the mountain clans had joined him. Flint, Norrey, Wull, Liddle, all.