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They woke to the smoke of Mole’s Town burning.

Atop the King’s Tower, Jon Snow leaned on the padded crutch that Maester Aemon had given him and watched the grey plume rise. Styr had lost all hope of taking Castle Black unawares when Jon escaped him, yet even so, he need not have warned of his approach so bluntly. You may kill us, he reflected, but no one will be butchered in their beds. That much I did, at least.

His leg still hurt like blazes when he put his weight on it. He’d needed Clydas to help him don his fresh-washed blacks and lace up his boots that morning, and by the time they were done he’d wanted to drown himself in the milk of the poppy. Instead he had settled for half a cup of dreamwine, a chew of willow bark, and the crutch. The beacon was burning on Weatherback Ridge, and the Night’s Watch had need of every man.

“I can fight,” he insisted when they tried to stop him.

“Your leg’s healed, is it?” Noye snorted. “You won’t mind me giving it a little kick, then?”

“I’d sooner you didn’t. It’s stiff, but I can hobble around well enough, and stand and fight if you have need of me.”

“I have need of every man who knows which end of the spear to stab into the wildlings.”

“The pointy end.” Jon had told his little sister something like that once, he remembered.

Noye rubbed the bristle on his chin. “Might be you’ll do. We’ll put you on a tower with a longbow, but if you bloody well fall off don’t come crying to me.”

He could see the kingsroad wending its way south through stony brown fields and over windswept hills. The Magnar would be coming up that road before the day was done, his Thenns marching behind him with axes and spears in their hands and their bronze-and-leather shields on their backs. Grigg the Goat, Quort, Big Boil, and the rest will be coming as well. And Ygritte. The wildlings had never been his friends, he had not allowed them to be his friends, but her…

He could feel the throb of pain where her arrow had gone through the meat and muscle of his thigh. He remembered the old man’s eyes too, and the black blood rushing from his throat as the storm cracked overhead. But he remembered the grotto best of all, the look of her naked in the torchlight, the taste of her mouth when it opened under his. Ygritte, stay away. Go south and raid, go hide in one of those roundtowers you liked so well. You’ll find nothing here but death.

Across the yard, one of the bowmen on the roof of the old Flint Barracks had unlaced his breeches and was pissing through a crenel. Mully, he knew from the man’s greasy orange hair. Men in black cloaks were visible on other roofs and tower tops as well, though nine of every ten happened to be made of straw. “The scarecrow sentinels,” Donal Noye called them. Only we’re the crows, Jon mused, and most of us were scared enough.

Whatever you called them, the straw soldiers had been Maester Aemon’s notion. They had more breeches and jerkins and tunics in the storerooms than they’d had men to fill them, so why not stuff some with straw, drape a cloak around their shoulders, and set them to standing watches? Noye had placed them on every tower and in half the windows. Some were even clutching spears, or had crossbows cocked under their arms. The hope was that the Thenns would see them from afar and decide that Castle Black was too well defended to attack.

Jon had six scarecrows sharing the roof of the King’s Tower with him, along with two actual breathing brothers. Deaf Dick Follard sat in a crenel, methodically cleaning and oiling the mechanism of his crossbow to make sure the wheel turned smoothly, while the Oldtown boy wandered restlessly around the parapets, fussing with the clothes on straw men. Maybe he thinks they will fight better if they’re posed just right. Or maybe this waiting is fraying his nerves the way it’s fraying mine.

The boy claimed to be eighteen, older than Jon, but he was green as summer grass for all that. Satin, they called him, even in the wool and mail and boiled leather of the Night’s Watch; the name he’d gotten in the brothel where he’d been born and raised. He was pretty as a girl with his dark eyes, soft skin, and raven’s ringlets. Half a year at Castle Black had toughened up his hands, however, and Noye said he was passable with a crossbow. Whether he had the courage to face what was coming, though…

Jon used the crutch to limp across the tower top. The King’s Tower was not the castle’s tallest — the high, slim, crumbling Lance held that honor, though Othell Yarwyck had been heard to say it might topple any day. Nor was the King’s Tower strongest — the Tower of Guards beside the kingsroad would be a tougher nut to crack. But it was tall enough, strong enough, and well placed beside the Wall, overlooking the gate and the foot of the wooden stair.

The first time he had seen Castle Black with his own eyes, Jon had wondered why anyone would be so foolish as to build a castle without walls. How could it be defended?

“It can’t,” his uncle told him. “That is the point. The Night’s Watch is pledged to take no part in the quarrels of the realm. Yet over the centuries certain Lords Commander, more proud than wise, forgot their vows and near destroyed us all with their ambitions. Lord Commander Runcel Hightower tried to bequeathe the Watch to his bastard son. Lord Commander Rodrik Flint thought to make himself King-beyond-the-Wall. Tristan Mudd, Mad Marq Rankenfell, Robin Hill… did you know that six hundred years ago, the commanders at Snowgate and the Nightfort went to war against each other? And when the Lord Commander tried to stop them, they joined forces to murder him? The Stark in Winterfell had to take a hand… and both their heads. Which he did easily, because their strongholds were not defensible. The Night’s Watch had nine hundred and ninety-six Lords Commander before Jeor Mormont, most of them men of courage and honor… but we have had cowards and fools as well, our tyrants and our madmen. We survive because the lords and kings of the Seven Kingdoms know that we pose no threat to them, no matter who should lead us. Our only foes are to the north, and to the north we have the Wall.”

Only now those foes have gotten past the Wall to come up from the south, Jon reflected, and the lords and kings of the Seven Kingdoms have forgotten us. We are caught between the hammer and the anvil. Without a wall Castle Black could not be held; Donal Noye knew that as well as any. “The castle does them no good,” the armorer told his little garrison. “Kitchens, common hall, stables, even the towers… let them take it all. We’ll empty the armory and move what stores we can to the top of the Wall, and make our stand around the gate.”

So Castle Black had a wall of sorts at last, a crescent-shaped barricade ten feet high made of stores; casks of nails and barrels of salt mutton, crates, bales of black broadcloth, stacked logs, sawn timbers, fire-hardened stakes, and sacks and sacks of grain. The crude rampart enclosed the two things most worth defending; the gate to the north, and the foot of the great wooden switchback stair that clawed and climbed its way up the face of the Wall like a drunken thunderbolt, supported by wooden beams as big as tree trunks driven deep into the ice.

The last few moles were still making the long climb, Jon saw, urged on by his brothers. Grenn was carrying a little boy in his arms, while Pyp, two flights below, let an old man lean upon his shoulder. The oldest villagers still waited below for the cage to make its way back down to them. He saw a mother pulling along two children, one on either hand, as an older boy ran past her up the steps. Two hundred feet above them, Sky Blue Su and Lady Meliana (who was no lady, all her friends agreed) stood on a landing, looking south. They had a better view of the smoke than he did, no doubt. Jon wondered about the villagers who had chosen not to flee. There were always a few, too stubborn or too stupid or too brave to run, a few who preferred to fight or hide or bend the knee. Maybe the Thenns would spare them.

The thing to do would be to take the attack to them, he thought. With fifty rangers well mounted, we could cut them apart on the road. They did not have fifty rangers, though, nor half as many horses. The garrison had not returned, and there was no way to know just where they were, or even whether the riders that Noye had sent out had reached them.

We are the garrison, Jon told himself, and look at us. The brothers Bowen Marsh had left behind were old men, cripples, and green boys, just as Donal Noye had warned him. He could see some wrestling barrels up the steps, others on the barricade; stout old Kegs, as slow as ever, Spare Boot hopping along briskly on his carved wooden leg, half-mad Easy who fancied himself Florian the Fool reborn, Dornish Dilly, Red Alyn of the Rosewood, Young Henly (well past fifty), Old Henly (well past seventy), Hairy Hal, Spotted Pate of Maidenpool. A couple of them saw Jon looking down from atop the King’s Tower and waved up at him. Others turned away. They still think me a turncloak. That was a bitter draft to drink, but Jon could not blame them. He was a bastard, after all. Everyone knew that bastards were wanton and treacherous by nature, having been born of lust and deceit. And he had made as many enemies as friends at Castle Black… Rast, for one. Jon had once threatened to have Ghost rip his throat out unless he stopped tormenting Samwell Tarly, and Rast did not forget things like that. He was raking dry leaves into piles under the stairs just now, but every so often he stopped long enough to give Jon a nasty look.

“No,” Donal Noye roared at three of the Mole’s Town men, down below. “The pitch goes to the hoist, the oil up the steps, crossbow bolts to the fourth, fifth, and sixth landings, spears to first and second. Stack the lard under the stair, yes, there, behind the planks. The casks of meat are for the barricade. Now, you poxy plow pushers, NOW!”

He has a lord’s voice, Jon thought. His father had always said that in battle a captain’s lungs were as important as his sword arm. “It does not matter how brave or brilliant a man is, if his commands cannot be heard,” Lord Eddard told his sons, so Robb and he used to climb the towers of Winterfell to shout at each other across the yard. Donal Noye could have drowned out both of them. The moles all went in terror of him, and rightfully so, since he was always threatening to rip their heads off.

Three-quarters of the village had taken Jon’s warning to heart and come to Castle Black for refuge. Noye had decreed that every man still spry enough to hold a spear or swing an axe would help defend the barricade, else they could damn well go home and take their chances with the Thenns. He had emptied the armory to put good steel in their hands; big double-bladed axes, razor-sharp daggers, longswords, maces, spiked morningstars. Clad in studded leather jerkins and mail hauberks, with greaves for their legs and gorgets to keep their heads on their shoulders, a few of them even looked like soldiers. In a bad light. If you squint.

Noye had put the women and children to work as well. Those too young to fight would carry water and tend the fires, the Mole’s Town midwife would assist Clydas and Maester Aemon with any wounded, and Three-Finger Hobb suddenly had more spit boys, kettle stirrers, and onion choppers than he knew what to do with. Two of the whores had even offered to fight, and had shown enough skill with the crossbow to be given a place on the steps forty feet up.

“It’s cold.” Satin stood with his hands tucked into his armpits under his cloak. His cheeks were bright red.

Jon made himself smile. “The Frostfangs are cold. This is a brisk autumn day.”

“I hope I never see the Frostfangs then. I knew a girl in Oldtown who liked to ice her wine. That’s the best place for ice, I think. In wine.” Satin glanced south, frowned. “You think the scarecrow sentinels scared them off, my lord?”

“We can hope.” It was possible, Jon supposed… but more likely the wildlings had simply paused for a bit of rape and plunder in Mole’s Town. Or maybe Styr was waiting for nightfall, to move up under cover of darkness.

Midday came and went, with still no sign of Thenns on the kingsroad. Jon heard footsteps inside the tower, though, and Owen the Oaf popped up out of the trapdoor, red-faced from the climb. He had a basket of buns under one arm, a wheel of cheese under the other, a bag of onions dangling from one hand. “Hobb said to feed you, in case you’re stuck up here awhile.”

That, or for our last meal. “Thank him for us, Owen.”

Dick Follard was deaf as a stone, but his nose worked well enough. The buns were still warm from the oven when he went digging in the basket and plucked one out. He found a crock of butter as well, and spread some with his dagger. “Raisins,” he announced happily. “Nuts, too.” His speech was thick, but easy enough to understand once you got used to it.

“You can have mine too,” said Satin. “I’m not hungry.”

“Eat,” Jon told him. “There’s no knowing when you’ll have another chance.” He took two buns himself. The nuts were pine nuts, and besides the raisins there were bits of dried apple.

“Will the wildlings come today, Lord Snow?” Owen asked.

“You’ll know if they do,” said Jon. “Listen for the horns.”

“Two. Two is for wildlings.” Owen was tall, towheaded, and amiable, a tireless worker and surprisingly deft when it came to working wood and fixing catapults and the like, but as he’d gladly tell you, his mother had dropped him on his head when he was a baby, and half his wits had leaked out through his ear.

“You remember where to go?” Jon asked him.

“I’m to go to the stairs, Donal Noye says. I’m to go up to the third landing and shoot my crossbow down at the wildlings if they try to climb over the barrier. The third landing, one two three.” His head bobbed up and down. “If the wildlings attack, the king will come and help us, won’t he? He’s a mighty warrior, King Robert. He’s sure to come. Maester Aemon sent him a bird.”

There was no use telling him that Robert Baratheon was dead. He would forget it, as he’d forgotten it before. “Maester Aemon sent him a bird,” Jon agreed. That seemed to make Owen happy.

Maester Aemon had sent a lot of birds… not to one king, but to four. Wildlings at the gate, the message ran. The realm in danger. Send all the help you can to Castle Black. Even as far as Oldtown and the Citadel the ravens flew, and to half a hundred mighty lords in their castles. The northern lords offered their best hope, so to them Aemon had sent two birds. To the Umbers and the Boltons, to Castle Cerwyn and Torrhen’s Square, Karhold and Deepwood Motte, to Bear Island, Oldcastle, Widow’s Watch, White Harbor, Barrowton, and the Rills, to the mountain fastnesses of the Liddles, the Burleys, the Norreys, the Harclays, and the Wulls, the black birds brought their plea. Wildlings at the gate. The north in danger. Come with all your strength.

Well, ravens might have wings, but lords and kings do not. If help was coming, it would not come today.

As morning turned to afternoon, the smoke of Mole’s Town blew away and the southern sky was clear again. No clouds, thought Jon. That was good. Rain or snow could doom them all.

Clydas and Maester Aemon rode the winch cage up to safety at the top of the Wall, and most of the Mole’s Town wives as well. Men in black cloaks paced restlessly on the tower tops and shouted back and forth across the courtyards. Septon Cellador led the men on the barricade in a prayer, beseeching the Warrior to give them strength. Deaf Dick Follard curled up beneath his cloak and went to sleep. Satin walked a hundred leagues in circles, round and round the crenellations. The Wall wept and the sun crept across a hard blue sky. Near evenfall, Owen the Oaf returned with a loaf of black bread and a pail of Hobb’s best mutton, cooked in a thick broth of ale and onions. Even Dick woke up for that. They ate every bit of it, using chunks of bread to wipe the bottom of the pail. By the time they were done the sun was low in the west, the shadows sharp and black throughout the castle. “Light the fire,” Jon told Satin, “and fill the kettle with oil.”

He went downstairs himself to bar the door, to try and work some of the stiffness from his leg. That was a mistake, and Jon soon knew it, but he clutched the crutch and saw it through all the same. The door to the King’s Tower was oak studded with iron. It might delay the Thenns, but it would not stop them if they wanted to come in. Jon slammed the bar down in its notches, paid a visit to the privy — it might well be his last chance — and hobbled back up to the roof, grimacing at the pain.

The west had gone the color of a blood bruise, but the sky above was cobalt blue, deepening to purple, and the stars were coming out. Jon sat between two merlons with only a scarecrow for company and watched the Stallion gallop up the sky. Or was it the Horned Lord? He wondered where Ghost was now. He wondered about Ygritte as well, and told himself that way lay madness.

They came in the night, of course. Like thieves, Jon thought. Like murderers.

Satin pissed himself when the horns blew, but Jon pretended not to notice. “Go shake Dick by the shoulder,” he told the Oldtown boy, “else he’s liable to sleep through the fight.”

“I’m frightened.” Satin’s face was a ghastly white.

“So are they.” Jon leaned his crutch up against a merlon and took up his longbow, bending the smooth thick Dornish yew to slip a bowstring through the notches. “Don’t waste a quarrel unless you know you have a good clean shot,” he said when Satin returned from waking Dick. “We have an ample supply up here, but ample doesn’t mean inexhaustible. And step behind a merlon to reload, don’t try and hide in back of a scarecrow. They’re made of straw, an arrow will punch through them.” He did not bother telling Dick Follard anything. Dick could read your lips if there was enough light and he gave a damn what you were saying, but he knew it all already.

The three of them took up positions on three sides of the round tower. Jon hung a quiver from his belt and pulled an arrow. The shaft was black, the fletching grey. As he notched it to his string, he remembered something that Theon Greyjoy had once said after a hunt. “The boar can keep his tusks and the bear his claws,” he had declared, smiling that way he did. “There’s nothing half so mortal as a grey goose feather.”

Jon had never been half the hunter that Theon was, but he was no stranger to the longbow either. There were dark shapes slipping around the armory, backs against the stone, but he could not see them well enough to waste an arrow. He heard distant shouts, and saw the archers on the Tower of Guards loosing shafts at the ground. That was too far off to concern Jon. But when he glimpsed three shadows detach themselves from the old stables fifty yards away, he stepped up to the crenel, raised his bow, and drew. They were running, so he led them, waiting, waiting…

The arrow made a soft hiss as it left his string. A moment later there was a grunt, and suddenly only two shadows were loping across the yard. They ran all the faster, but Jon had already pulled a second arrow from his quiver. This time he hurried the shot too much, and missed. The wildlings were gone by the time he nocked again. He searched for another target, and found four, rushing around the empty shell of the Lord Commander’s Keep. The moonlight glimmered off their spears and axes, and the gruesome devices on their round leathern shields; skulls and bones, serpents, bear claws, twisted demonic faces. Free folk, he knew. The Thenns carried shields of black boiled leather with bronze rims and bosses, but theirs were plain and unadorned. These were the lighter wicker shields of raiders.

Jon pulled the goose feather back to his ear, aimed, and loosed the arrow, then nocked and drew and loosed again. The first shaft pierced the bearclaw shield, the second one a throat. The wildling screamed as he went down. He heard the deep thrum of Deaf Dick’s crossbow to his left, and Satin’s a moment later. “I got one!” the boy cried hoarsely. “I got one in the chest.”

“Get another,” Jon called.

He did not have to search for targets now; only choose them. He dropped a wildling archer as he was fitting an arrow to his string, then sent a shaft toward the axeman hacking at the door of Hardin’s Tower. That time he missed, but the arrow quivering in the oak made the wildling reconsider. It was only as he was running off that Jon recognized Big Boil. Half a heartbeat later, old Mully put an arrow through his leg from the roof of the Flint Barracks, and he crawled off bleeding. That will stop him bitching about his boil, Jon thought.

When his quiver was empty, he went to get another, and moved to a different crenel, side by side with Deaf Dick Follard. Jon got off three arrows for every bolt Deaf Dick discharged, but that was the advantage of the longbow. The crossbow penetrated better, some insisted, but it was slow and cumbersome to reload. He could hear the wildlings shouting to each other, and somewhere to the west a warhorn blew. The world was moonlight and shadow, and time became an endless round of notch and draw and loose. A wildling arrow ripped through the throat of the straw sentinel beside him, but Jon Snow scarcely noticed. Give me one clean shot at the Magnar of Thenn, he prayed to his father’s gods. The Magnar at least was a foe that he could hate. Give me Styr.

His fingers were growing stiff and his thumb was bleeding, but still Jon notched and drew and loosed. A gout of flame caught his eye, and he turned to see the door of the common hall afire. It was only a few moments before the whole great timbered hall was burning. Three-Finger Hobb and his Mole’s Town helpers were safe atop the Wall, he knew, but it felt like a punch in the belly all the same. “JON,” Deaf Dick yelled in his thick voice, “the armory.” They were on the roof, he saw. One had a torch. Dick hopped up on the crenel for a better shot, jerked his crossbow to his shoulder, and sent a quarrel thrumming toward the torch man. He missed.

The archer down below him didn’t.

Follard never made a sound, only toppled forward headlong over the parapet. It was a hundred feet to the yard below. Jon heard the thump as he was peering round a straw soldier, trying to see where the arrow had come from. Not ten feet from Deaf Dick’s body, he glimpsed a leather shield, a ragged cloak, a mop of thick red hair. Kissed by fire, he thought, lucky. He brought his bow up, but his fingers would not part, and she was gone as suddenly as she’d appeared. He swiveled, cursing, and loosed a shaft at the men on the armory roof instead, but he missed them as well.

By then the east stables were afire too, black smoke and wisps of burning hay pouring from the stalls. When the roof collapsed, flames rose up roaring, so loud they almost drowned out the warhorns of the Thenns. Fifty of them were pounding up the kingsroad in tight column, their shields held up above their heads. Others were swarming through the vegetable garden, across the flagstone yard, around the old dry well. Three had hacked their way through the doors of Maester Aemon’s apartments in the timber keep below the rookery, and a desperate fight was going on atop the Silent Tower, longswords against bronze axes. None of that mattered. The dance has moved on, he thought.

Jon hobbled across to Satin and grabbed him by the shoulder. “With me,” he shouted. Together they moved to the north parapet, where the King’s Tower looked down on the gate and Donal Noye’s makeshift wall of logs and barrels and sacks of corn. The Thenns were there before them. They wore halfhelms, and had thin bronze disks sewn to their long leather shirts. Many wielded bronze axes, though a few were chipped stone. More had short stabbing spears with leaf-shaped heads that gleamed redly in the light from the burning stables. They were screaming in the Old Tongue as they stormed the barricade, jabbing with their spears, swinging their bronze axes, spilling corn and blood with equal abandon while crossbow quarrels and arrows rained down on them from the archers that Donal Noye had posted on the stair.

“What do we do?” Satin shouted.

“We kill them,” Jon shouted back, a black arrow in his hand.

No archer could have asked for an easier shot. The Thenns had their backs to the King’s Tower as they charged the crescent, clambering over bags and barrels to reach the men in black. Both Jon and Satin chanced to choose the same target. He had just reached the top of the barricade when an arrow sprouted from his neck and a quarrel between his shoulder blades. Half a heartbeat later a longsword took him in the belly and he fell back onto the man behind him. Jon reached down to his quiver and found it empty again. Satin was winding back his crossbow. He left him to it and went for more arrows, but he hadn’t taken more than three steps before the trap slammed open three feet in front of him. Bloody hell, I never even heard the door break.

There was no time to think or plan or shout for help. Jon dropped his bow, reached back over his shoulder, ripped Longclaw from its sheath, and buried the blade in the middle of the first head to pop out of the tower. Bronze was no match for Valyrian steel. The blow sheared right through the Thenn’s helm and deep into his skull, and he went crashing back down where he’d come from. There were more behind him, Jon knew from the shouting. He fell back and called to Satin. The next man to make the climb got a quarrel through his cheek. He vanished too. “The oil,” Jon said. Satin nodded. Together they snatched up the thick quilted pads they’d left beside the fire, lifted the heavy kettle of boiling oil, and dumped it down the hole on the Thenns below. The shrieks were as bad as anything he had ever heard, and Satin looked as though he was going to be sick. Jon kicked the trapdoor shut, set the heavy iron kettle on top of it, and gave the boy with the pretty face a hard shake. “Retch later,” Jon yelled. “Come.”

They had only been gone from the parapets for a few moments, but everything below had changed. A dozen black brothers and a few Mole’s Town men still stood atop the crates and barrels, but the wildlings were swarming over all along the crescent, pushing them back. Jon saw one shove his spear up through Rast’s belly so hard he lifted him into the air. Young Henly was dead and Old Henly was dying, surrounded by foes. He could see Easy spinning and slashing, laughing like a loon, his cloak flapping as he leapt from cask to cask. A bronze axe caught him just below the knee and the laughter turned into a bubbling shriek.

“They’re breaking,” Satin said.

“No,” said Jon, “they’re broken.”

It happened quickly. One mole fled and then another, and suddenly all the villagers were throwing down their weapons and abandoning the barricade. The brothers were too few to hold alone. Jon watched them try and form a line to fall back in order, but the Thenns washed over them with spear and axe, and then they were fleeing too. Dornish Dilly slipped and went down on his face, and a wildling planted a spear between his shoulder blades. Kegs, slow and short of breath, had almost reached the bottom step when a Thenn caught the end of his cloak and yanked him around… but a crossbow quarrel dropped the man before his axe could fall. “Got him,” Satin crowed, as Kegs staggered to the stair and began to crawl up the steps on hands and knees.

The gate is lost. Donal Noye had closed and chained it, but it was there for the taking, the iron bars glimmering red with reflected firelight, the cold black tunnel behind. No one had fallen back to defend it; the only safety was on top of the Wall, seven hundred feet up the crooked wooden stairs.

“What gods do you pray to?” Jon asked Satin.

“The Seven,” the boy from Oldtown said.

“Pray, then,” Jon told him. “Pray to your new gods, and I’ll pray to my old ones.” It all turned here.

With the confusion at the trapdoor, Jon had forgotten to fill his quiver. He limped back across the roof and did that now, and picked up his bow as well. The kettle had not moved from where he’d left it, so it seemed as though they were safe enough for the nonce. The dance has moved on, and we’re watching from the gallery, he thought as he hobbled back. Satin was loosing quarrels at the wildlings on the steps, then ducking down behind a merlon to cock the crossbow. He may be pretty, but he’s quick.

The real battle was on the steps. Noye had put spearmen on the two lowest landings, but the headlong flight of the villagers had panicked them and they had joined the flight, racing up toward the third landing with the Thenns killing anyone who fell behind. The archers and crossbowmen on the higher landings were trying to drop shafts over their heads. Jon nocked an arrow, drew, and loosed, and was pleased when one of the wildlings went rolling down the steps. The heat of the fires was making the Wall weep, and the flames danced and shimmered against the ice. The steps shook to the footsteps of men running for their lives.

Again Jon notched and drew and loosed, but there was only one of him and one of Satin, and a good sixty or seventy Thenns pounding up the stairs, killing as they went, drunk on victory. On the fourth landing, three brothers in black cloaks stood shoulder to shoulder with longswords in their hands, and battle was joined again, briefly. But there were only three and soon enough the wildling tide washed over them, and their blood dripped down the steps. “A man is never so vulnerable in battle as when he flees,” Lord Eddard had told Jon once. “A running man is like a wounded animal to a soldier. It gets his bloodlust up.” The archers on the fifth landing fled before the battle even reached them. It was a rout, a red rout.

“Fetch the torches,” Jon told Satin. There were four of them stacked beside the fire, their heads wrapped in oily rags. There were a dozen fire arrows too. The Oldtown boy thrust one torch into the fire until it was blazing brightly, and brought the rest back under his arm, unlit. He looked frightened again, as well he might. Jon was frightened too.

It was then that he saw Styr. The Magnar was climbing up the barricade, over the gutted corn sacks and smashed barrels and the bodies of friends and foe alike. His bronze scale armor gleamed darkly in the firelight. Styr had taken off his helm to survey the scene of his triumph, and the bald earless whoreson was smiling. In his hand was a long weirwood spear with an ornate bronze head. When he saw the gate, he pointed the spear at it and barked something in the Old Tongue to the half-dozen Thenns around him. Too late, Jon thought. You should have led your men over the barricade, you might have been able to save a few.

Up above, a warhorn sounded, long and low. Not from the top of the Wall, but from the ninth landing, some two hundred feet up, where Donal Noye was standing.

Jon notched a fire arrow to his bowstring, and Satin lit it from the torch. He stepped to the parapet, drew, aimed, loosed. Ribbons of flame trailed behind as the shaft sped downward and thudded into its target, crackling.

Not Styr. The steps. Or more precisely, the casks and kegs and sacks that Donal Noye had piled up beneath the steps, as high as the first landing; the barrels of lard and lamp oil, the bags of leaves and oily rags, the split logs, bark, and wood shavings. “Again,” said Jon, and, “Again,” and, “Again.” Other longbowmen were firing too, from every tower top in range, some sending their arrows up in high arcs to drop before the Wall. When Jon ran out of fire arrows, he and Satin began to light the torches and fling them from the crenels.

Up above another fire was blooming. The old wooden steps had drunk up oil like a sponge, and Donal Noye had drenched them from the ninth landing all the way down to the seventh. Jon could only hope that most of their own people had staggered up to safety before Noye threw the torches. The black brothers at least had known the plan, but the villagers had not.

Wind and fire did the rest. All Jon had to do was watch. With flames below and flames above, the wildlings had nowhere to go. Some continued upward, and died. Some went downward, and died. Some stayed where they were. They died as well. Many leapt from the steps before they burned, and died from the fall. Twenty-odd Thenns were still huddled together between the fires when the ice cracked from the heat, and the whole lower third of the stair broke off, along with several tons of ice. That was the last that Jon Snow saw of Styr, the Magnar of Thenn. The Wall defends itself, he thought.

Jon asked Satin to help him down to the yard. His wounded leg hurt so badly that he could hardly walk, even with the crutch. “Bring the torch,” he told the boy from Oldtown. “I need to look for someone.” It had been mostly Thenns on the steps. Surely some of the free folk had escaped. Mance’s people, not the Magnar’s. She might have been one. So they climbed down past the bodies of the men who’d tried the trapdoor, and Jon wandered through the dark with his crutch under one arm, and the other around the shoulders of a boy who’d been a whore in Oldtown.

The stables and the common hall had burned down to smoking cinders by then, but the fire still raged along the wall, climbing step by step and landing by landing. From time to time they’d hear a groan and then a craaaack, and another chunk would come crashing off the Wall. The air was full of ash and ice crystals.

He found Quort dead, and Stone Thumbs dying. He found some dead and dying Thenns he had never truly known. He found Big Boil, weak from all the blood he’d lost but still alive.

He found Ygritte sprawled across a patch of old snow beneath the Lord Commander’s Tower, with an arrow between her breasts. The ice crystals had settled over her face, and in the moonlight it looked as though she wore a glittering silver mask.

The arrow was black, Jon saw, but it was fletched with white duck feathers. Not mine, he told himself, not one of mine. But he felt as if it were.

When he knelt in the snow beside her, her eyes opened. “Jon Snow,” she said, very softly. It sounded as though the arrow had found a lung. “Is this a proper castle now? Not just a tower?”

“It is.” Jon took her hand.

“Good,” she whispered. “I wanted t’ see one proper castle, before… before I…”

“You’ll see a hundred castles,” he promised her. “The battle’s done. Maester Aemon will see to you.” He touched her hair. “You’re kissed by fire, remember? Lucky. It will take more than an arrow to kill you. Aemon will draw it out and patch you up, and we’ll get you some milk of the poppy for the pain.”

She just smiled at that. “D’you remember that cave? We should have stayed in that cave. I told you so.”

“We’ll go back to the cave,” he said. “You’re not going to die, Ygritte. You’re not.”

“Oh.” Ygritte cupped his cheek with her hand. “You know nothing, Jon Snow,” she sighed, dying.

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