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Of the five contenders for power, one is dead, another in disfavor, and still the wars rage as violently as ever, as alliances are made and broken. Joffrey, of House Lannister, sits on the Iron Throne, the uneasy ruler of the land of the Seven Kingdoms. His most bitter rival, Lord Stannis, stands defeated and disgraced, the victim of the jealous sorceress who holds him in her evil thrall. But young Robb, of House Stark, still rules the North from the fortress of Riverrun. Robb plots against his despised Lannister enemies, even as they hold his sister hostage at King’s Landing, the seat of the Iron Throne. Meanwhile, making her way across a blood-drenched continent is the exiled queen, Daenerys, mistress of the only three dragons still left in the world…
But as opposing forces maneuver for the final titanic showdown, an army of barbaric wildlings arrives from the outermost line of civilization. In their vanguard is a horde of mythical Others-a supernatural army of the living dead whose animated corpses are unstoppable. As the future of the land hangs in the balance, no one will rest until the Seven Kingdoms have exploded in a veritable storm of swords…
A Song of Ice and Fire is told through the eyes of characters who are sometimes hundreds or even thousands of miles apart from one another. Some chapters cover a day, some only an hour; others might span a fortnight, a month, half a year. With such a structure, the narrative cannot be strictly sequential; sometimes important things are happening simultaneously, a thousand leagues apart.
In the case of the volume now in hand, the reader should realize that the opening chapters of A Storm of Swords do not follow the closing chapters of A Clash of Kings so much as overlap them. I open with a look at some of the things that were happening on the Fist of the First Men, at Riverrun, Harrenhal, and on the Trident while the Battle of the Blackwater was being fought at King’s Landing, and during its aftermath.
The day was grey and bitter cold, and the dogs would not take the scent.
The big black bitch had taken one sniff at the bear tracks, backed off, and skulked back to the pack with her tail between her legs. The dogs huddled together miserably on the riverbank as the wind snapped at them. Chett felt it too, biting through his layers of black wool and boiled leather. It was too bloody cold for man or beast, but here they were. His mouth twisted, and he could almost feel the boils that covered his cheeks and neck growing red and angry. I should be safe back at the Wall, tending the bloody ravens and making fires for old Maester Aemon. It was the bastard Jon Snow who had taken that from him, him and his fat friend Sam Tarly. It was their fault he was here, freezing his bloody balls off with a pack of hounds deep in the haunted forest.
“Seven hells.” He gave the leashes a hard yank to get the dogs’ attention. “Track, you bastards. That’s a bear print. You want some meat or no? Find!” But the hounds only huddled closer, whining. Chett snapped his short lash above their heads, and the black bitch snarled at him. “Dog meat would taste as good as bear,” he warned her, his breath frosting with every word.
Lark the Sisterman stood with his arms crossed over his chest and his hands tucked up into his armpits. He wore black wool gloves, but he was always complaining how his fingers were frozen. “It’s too bloody cold to hunt,” he said. “Bugger this bear, he’s not worth freezing over.”
“We can’t go back emptyhand, Lark,” rumbled Small Paul through the brown whiskers that covered most of his face. “The Lord Commander wouldn’t like that.” There was ice under the big man’s squashed pug nose, where his snot had frozen. A huge hand in a thick fur glove clenched tight around the shaft of a spear.
“Bugger that Old Bear too,” said the Sisterman, a thin man with sharp features and nervous eyes. “Mormont will be dead before daybreak, remember? Who cares what he likes?”
Small Paul blinked his black little eyes. Maybe he had forgotten, Chett thought; he was stupid enough to forget most anything. “Why do we have to kill the Old Bear? Why don’t we just go off and let him be?”
“You think he’ll let us be?” said Lark. “He’ll hunt us down. You want to be hunted, you great muttonhead?”
“No,” said Small Paul. “I don’t want that. I don’t.”
“So you’ll kill him?” said Lark.
“Yes.” The huge man stamped the butt of his spear on the frozen riverbank. “I will. He shouldn’t hunt us.”
The Sisterman took his hands from his armpits and turned to Chett. “We need to kill all the officers, I say.”
Chett was sick of hearing it. “We been over this. The Old Bear dies, and Blane from the Shadow Tower. Grubbs and Aethan as well, their ill luck for drawing the watch, Dywen and Bannen for their tracking, and Ser Piggy for the ravens. That’s all. We kill them quiet, while they sleep. One scream and we’re wormfood, every one of us.” His boils were red with rage. “Just do your bit and see that your cousins do theirs. And Paul, try and remember, it’s third watch, not second.”
“Third watch,” the big man said, through hair and frozen snot. “Me and Softfoot. I remember, Chett.”
The moon would be black tonight, and they had jiggered the watches so as to have eight of their own standing sentry, with two more guarding the horses. It wasn’t going to get much riper than that. Besides, the wildlings could be upon them any day now. Chett meant to be well away from here before that happened. He meant to live.
Three hundred sworn brothers of the Night’s Watch had ridden north, two hundred from Castle Black and another hundred from the Shadow Tower. It was the biggest ranging in living memory, near a third of the Watch’s strength. They meant to find Ben Stark, Ser Waymar Royce, and the other rangers who’d gone missing, and discover why the wildlings were leaving their villages. Well, they were no closer to Stark and Royce than when they’d left the Wall, but they’d learned where all the wildlings had gone — up into the icy heights of the godsforsaken Frostfangs. They could squat up there till the end of time and it wouldn’t prick Chett’s boils none.
But no. They were coming down. Down the Milkwater.
Chett raised his eyes and there it was. The river’s stony banks were bearded by ice, its pale milky waters flowing endlessly down out of the Frostfangs. And now Mance Rayder and his wildlings were flowing down the same way. Thoren Smallwood had returned in a lather three days past. While he was telling the Old Bear what his scouts had seen, his man Kedge Whiteye told the rest of them. “They’re still well up the foothills, but they’re coming,” Kedge said, warming his hands over the fire. “Harma the Dogshead has the van, the poxy bitch. Goady crept up on her camp and saw her plain by the fire. That fool Tumberjon wanted to pick her off with an arrow, but Smallwood had better sense.”
Chett spat. “How many were there, could you tell?”
“Many and more. Twenty, thirty thousand, we didn’t stay to count. Harma had five hundred in the van, every one ahorse.”
The men around the fire exchanged uneasy looks. It was a rare thing to find even a dozen mounted wildlings, and five hundred…
“Smallwood sent Bannen and me wide around the van to catch a peek at the main body,” Kedge went on. “There was no end of them. They’re moving slow as a frozen river, four, five miles a day, but they don’t look like they mean to go back to their villages neither. More’n half were women and children, and they were driving their animals before them, goats, sheep, even aurochs dragging sledges. They’d loaded up with bales of fur and sides of meat, cages of chickens, butter churns and spinning wheels, every damn thing they own. The mules and garrons was so heavy laden you’d think their backs would break. The women as well.”
“And they follow the Milkwater?” Lark the Sisterman asked.
“I said so, didn’t I?”
The Milkwater would take them past the Fist of the First Men, the ancient ringfort where the Night’s Watch had made its camp. Any man with a thimble of sense could see that it was time to pull up stakes and fall back on the Wall. The Old Bear had strengthened the Fist with spikes and pits and caltrops, but against such a host all that was pointless. If they stayed here, they would be engulfed and overwhelmed.
And Thoren Smallwood wanted to attack. Sweet Donnel Hill was squire to Ser Mallador Locke, and the night before last Smallwood had come to Locke’s tent. Ser Mallador had been of the same mind as old Ser Ottyn Wythers, urging a retreat on the Wall, but Smallwood wanted to convince him otherwise. “This King-beyond-the-Wall will never look for us so far north,” Sweet Donnel reported him saying. “And this great host of his is a shambling horde, full of useless mouths who won’t know what end of a sword to hold. One blow will take all the fight out of them and send them howling back to their hovels for another fifty years.”
Three hundred against thirty thousand. Chett called that rank madness, and what was madder still was that Ser Mallador had been persuaded, and the two of them together were on the point of persuading the Old Bear. “If we wait too long, this chance may be lost, never to come again,” Smallwood was saying to anyone who would listen. Against that, Ser Ottyn Wythers said, “We are the shield that guards the realms of men. You do not throw away your shield for no good purpose,” but to that Thoren Smallwood said, “In a swordfight, a man’s surest defense is the swift stroke that slays his foe, not cringing behind a shield.”
Neither Smallwood nor Wythers had the command, though. Lord Mormont did, and Mormont was waiting for his other scouts, for Jarman Buckwell and the men who’d climbed the Giant’s Stair, and for Qhorin Halfhand and Jon Snow, who’d gone to probe the Skirling Pass. Buckwell and the Halfhand were late in returning, though. Dead, most like. Chett pictured Jon Snow lying blue and frozen on some bleak mountaintop with a wildling spear up his bastard’s arse. The thought made him smile. I hope they killed his bloody wolf as well.
“There’s no bear here,” he decided abruptly. “Just an old print, that’s all. Back to the Fist.” The dogs almost yanked him off his feet, as eager to get back as he was. Maybe they thought they were going to get fed. Chett had to laugh. He hadn’t fed them for three days now, to turn them mean and hungry. Tonight, before slipping off into the dark, he’d turn them loose among the horse lines, after Sweet Donnel Hill and Clubfoot Karl cut the tethers. They’ll have snarling hounds and panicked horses all over the Fist, running through fires, jumping the ringwall, and trampling down tents. With all the confusion, it might be hours before anyone noticed that fourteen brothers were missing.
Lark had wanted to bring in twice that number, but what could you expect from some stupid fishbreath Sisterman? Whisper a word in the wrong ear and before you knew it you’d be short a head. No, fourteen was a good number, enough to do what needed doing but not so many that they couldn’t keep the secret. Chett had recruited most of them himself. Small Paul was one of his; the strongest man on the Wall, even if he was slower than a dead snail. He’d once broken a wildling’s back with a hug. They had Dirk as well, named for his favorite weapon, and the little grey man the brothers called Softfoot, who’d raped a hundred women in his youth, and liked to boast how none had ever seen nor heard him until he shoved it up inside them.
The plan was Chett’s. He was the clever one; he’d been steward to old Maester Aemon for four good years before that bastard Jon Snow had done him out so his job could be handed to his fat pig of a friend. When he killed Sam Tarly tonight, he planned to whisper, “Give my love to Lord Snow,” right in his ear before he sliced Ser Piggy’s throat open to let the blood come bubbling out through all those layers of suet. Chett knew the ravens, so he wouldn’t have no trouble there, no more than he would with Tarly. One touch of the knife and that craven would piss his pants and start blubbering for his life. Let him beg, it won’t do him no good. After he opened his throat, he’d open the cages and shoo the birds away, so no messages reached the Wall. Softfoot and Small Paul would kill the Old Bear, Dirk would do Blane, and Lark and his cousins would silence Bannen and old Dywen, to keep them from sniffing after their trail. They’d been caching food for a fortnight, and Sweet Donnel and Clubfoot Karl would have the horses ready. With Mormont dead, command would pass to Ser Ottyn Wythers, an old done man, and failing. He’ll be running for the Wall before sundown, and he won’t waste no men sending them after us neither.
The dogs pulled at him as they made their way through the trees. Chett could see the Fist punching its way up through the green. The day was so dark that the Old Bear had the torches lit, a great circle of them burning all along the ringwall that crowned the top of the steep stony hill. The three of them waded across a brook. The water was icy cold, and patches of ice were spreading across its surface. “I’m going to make for the coast,” Lark the Sisterman confided. “Me and my cousins. We’ll build us a boat, sail back home to the Sisters.”
And at home they’ll know you for deserters and lop off your fool heads, thought Chett. There was no leaving the Night’s Watch, once you said your words. Anywhere in the Seven Kingdoms, they’d take you and kill you.
Ollo Lophand now, he was talking about sailing back to Tyrosh, where he claimed men didn’t lose their hands for a bit of honest thievery, nor get sent off to freeze their life away for being found in bed with some knight’s wife. Chett had weighed going with him, but he didn’t speak their wet girly tongue. And what could he do in Tyrosh? He had no trade to speak of, growing up in Hag’s Mire. His father had spent his life grubbing in other men’s fields and collecting leeches. He’d strip down bare but for a thick leather clout, and go wading in the murky waters. When he climbed out he’d be covered from nipple to ankle. Sometimes he made Chett help pull the leeches off. One had attached itself to his palm once, and he’d smashed it against a wall in revulsion. His father beat him bloody for that. The maesters bought the leeches at twelve-for-a-penny.
Lark could go home if he liked, and the damn Tyroshi too, but not Chett. If he never saw Hag’s Mire again, it would be too bloody soon. He had liked the look of Craster’s Keep, himself. Craster lived high as a lord there, so why shouldn’t he do the same? That would be a laugh. Chett the leechman’s son, a lord with a keep. His banner could be a dozen leeches on a field of pink. But why stop at lord? Maybe he should be a king. Mance Rayder started out a crow. I could be a king same as him, and have me some wives. Craster had nineteen, not even counting the young ones, the daughters he hadn’t gotten around to bedding yet. Half them wives were as old and ugly as Craster, but that didn’t matter. The old ones Chett could put to work cooking and cleaning for him, pulling carrots and slopping pigs, while the young ones warmed his bed and bore his children. Craster wouldn’t object, not once Small Paul gave him a hug.
The only women Chett had ever known were the whores he’d bought in Mole’s Town. When he’d been younger, the village girls took one look at his face, with its boils and its wen, and turned away sickened. The worst was that slattern Bessa. She’d spread her legs for every boy in Hag’s Mire so he’d figured why not him too? He even spent a morning picking wildflowers when he heard she liked them, but she’d just laughed in his face and told him she’d crawl in a bed with his father’s leeches before she’d crawl in one with him. She stopped laughing when he put his knife in her. That was sweet, the look on her face, so he pulled the knife out and put it in her again. When they caught him down near Sevenstreams, old Lord Walder Frey hadn’t even bothered to come himself to do the judging. He’d sent one of his bastards, that Walder Rivers, and the next thing Chett had known he was walking to the Wall with that foul-smelling black devil Yoren. To pay for his one sweet moment, they took his whole life.
But now he meant to take it back, and Craster’s women too. That twisted old wildling has the right of it. If you want a woman to wife you take her, and none of this giving her flowers so that maybe she don’t notice your bloody boils. Chett didn’t mean to make that mistake again.
It would work, he promised himself for the hundredth time. So long as we get away clean. Ser Ottyn would strike south for the Shadow Tower, the shortest way to the Wall. He won’t bother with us, not Wythers, all he’ll want is to get back whole. Thoren Smallwood now, he’d want to press on with the attack, but Ser Ottyn’s caution ran too deep, and he was senior. It won’t matter anyhow. Once we’re gone, Smallwood can attack anyone he likes. What do we care? If none of them ever returns to the Wall, no one will ever come looking for us, they’ll think we died with the rest. That was a new thought, and for a moment it tempted him. But they would need to kill Ser Ottyn and Ser Mallador Locke as well to give Smallwood the command, and both of them were well-attended day and night… no, the risk was too great.
“Chett,” said Small Paul as they trudged along a stony game trail through sentinels and soldier pines, “what about the bird?”
“What bloody bird?” The last thing he needed now was some mutton-head going on about a bird.
“The Old Bear’s raven,” Small Paul said. “If we kill him, who’s going to feed his bird?”
“Who bloody well cares? Kill the bird too if you like.”
“I don’t want to hurt no bird,” the big man said. “But that’s a talking bird. What if it tells what we did?”
Lark the Sisterman laughed. “Small Paul, thick as a castle wall,” he mocked.
“You shut up with that,” said Small Paul dangerously.
“Paul,” said Chett, before the big man got too angry, “when they find the old man lying in a pool of blood with his throat slit, they won’t need no bird to tell them someone killed him.”
Small Paul chewed on that a moment. “That’s true,” he allowed. “Can I keep the bird, then? I like that bird.”
“He’s yours,” said Chett, just to shut him up.
“We can always eat him if we get hungry,” offered Lark.
Small Paul clouded up again. “Best not try and eat my bird, Lark. Best not.”
Chett could hear voices drifting through the trees. “Close your bloody mouths, both of you. We’re almost to the Fist.”
They emerged near the west face of the hill, and walked around south where the slope was gentler. Near the edge of the forest a dozen men were taking archery practice. They had carved outlines on the trunks of trees, and were loosing shafts at them. “Look,” said Lark. “A pig with a bow.”
Sure enough, the nearest bowman was Ser Piggy himself, the fat boy who had stolen his place with Maester Aemon. Just the sight of Samwell Tarly filled him with anger. Stewarding for Maester Aemon had been as good a life as he’d ever known. The old blind man was undemanding, and Clydas had taken care of most of his wants anyway. Chett’s duties were easy: cleaning the rookery, a few fires to build, a few meals to fetch… and Aemon never once hit him. Thinks he can just walk in and shove me out, on account of being highborn and knowing how to read. Might be I’ll ask him to read my knife before I open his throat with it. “You go on,” he told the others, “I want to watch this.” The dogs were pulling, anxious to go with them, to the food they thought would be waiting at the top. Chett kicked the bitch with the toe of his boot, and that settled them down some.
He watched from the trees as the fat boy wrestled with a longbow as tall as he was, his red moon face screwed up with concentration. Three arrows stood in the ground before him. Tarly nocked and drew, held the draw a long moment as he tried to aim, and let fly. The shaft vanished into the greenery. Chett laughed loudly, a snort of sweet disgust.
“We’ll never find that one, and I’ll be blamed,” announced Edd Tollett, the dour grey-haired squire everyone called Dolorous Edd. “Nothing ever goes missing that they don’t look at me, ever since that time I lost my horse. As if that could be helped. He was white and it was snowing, what did they expect?”
“The wind took that one,” said Grenn, another friend of Lord Snow’s. “Try to hold the bow steady, Sam.”
“It’s heavy,” the fat boy complained, but he pulled the second arrow all the same. This one went high, sailing through the branches ten feet above the target.
“I believe you knocked a leaf off that tree,” said Dolorous Edd. “Fall is falling fast enough, there’s no need to help it.” He sighed. “And we all know what follows fall. Gods, but I am cold. Shoot the last arrow, Samwell, I believe my tongue is freezing to the roof of my mouth.”
Ser Piggy lowered the bow, and Chett thought he was going to start bawling. “It’s too hard.”
“Notch, draw, and loose,” said Grenn. “Go on.”
Dutifully, the fat boy plucked his final arrow from the earth, notched it to his longbow, drew, and released. He did it quickly, without squinting along the shaft painstakingly as he had the first two times. The arrow struck the charcoal outline low in the chest and hung quivering. “I hit him.” Ser Piggy sounded shocked. “Grenn, did you see? Edd, look, I hit him!”
“Put it between his ribs, I’d say,” said Grenn.
“Did I kill him?” the fat boy wanted to know.
Tollett shrugged. “Might have punctured a lung, if he had a lung. Most trees don’t, as a rule.” He took the bow from Sam’s hand. “I’ve seen worse shots, though. Aye, and made a few.”
Ser Piggy was beaming. To look at him you’d think he’d actually done something. But when he saw Chett and the dogs, his smile curled up and died squeaking.
“You hit a tree,” Chett said. “Let’s see how you shoot when it’s Mance Rayder’s lads. They won’t stand there with their arms out and their leaves rustling, oh no. They’ll come right at you, screaming in your face, and I bet you’ll piss those breeches. One o’ them will plant his axe right between those little pig eyes. The last thing you’ll hear will be the thunk it makes when it bites into your skull.”
The fat boy was shaking. Dolorous Edd put a hand on his shoulder. “Brother,” he said solemnly, “just because it happened that way for you doesn’t mean Samwell will suffer the same.”
“What are you talking about, Tollett?”
“The axe that split your skull. Is it true that half your wits leaked out on the ground and your dogs ate them?”
The big lout Grenn laughed, and even Samwell Tarly managed a weak little smile. Chett kicked the nearest dog, yanked on their leashes, and started up the hill. Smile all you want, Ser Piggy. We’ll see who laughs tonight. He only wished he had time to kill Tollett as well. Gloomy horsefaced fool, that’s what he is.
The climb was steep, even on this side of the Fist, which had the gentlest slope. Partway up the dogs started barking and pulling at him, figuring that they’d get fed soon. He gave them a taste of his boot instead, and a crack of the whip for the big ugly one that snapped at him. Once they were tied up, he went to report. “The prints were there like Giant said, but the dogs wouldn’t track,” he told Mormont in front of his big black tent. “Down by the river like that, could be old prints.”
“A pity.” Lord Commander Mormont had a bald head and a great shaggy grey beard, and sounded as tired as he looked. “We might all have been better for a bit of fresh meat.” The raven on his shoulder bobbed its head and echoed, “Meat. Meat. Meat.”
We could cook the bloody dogs, Chett thought, but he kept his mouth shut until the Old Bear sent him on his way. And that’s the last time I’ll need to bow my head to that one, he thought to himself with satisfaction. It seemed to him that it was growing even colder, which he would have sworn wasn’t possible. The dogs huddled together miserably in the hard frozen mud, and Chett was half tempted to crawl in with them. Instead he wrapped a black wool scarf round the lower part of his face, leaving a slit for his mouth between the winds. It was warmer if he kept moving, he found, so he made a slow circuit of the perimeter with a wad of sourleaf, sharing a chew or two with the black brothers on guard and hearing what they had to say. None of the men on the day watch were part of his scheme; even so, he figured it was good to have some sense of what they were thinking.
Mostly what they were thinking was that it was bloody cold.
The wind was rising as the shadows lengthened. It made a high thin sound as it shivered through the stones of the ringwall. “I hate that sound,” little Giant said. “It sounds like a babe in the brush, wailing away for milk.”
When he finished the circuit and returned to the dogs, he found Lark waiting for him. “The officers are in the Old Bear’s tent again, talking something fierce.”
“That’s what they do,” said Chett. “They’re highborn, all but Blane, they get drunk on words instead of wine.”
Lark sidled closer. “Cheese-for-wits keeps going on about the bird,” he warned, glancing about to make certain no one was close. “Now he’s asking if we cached any seed for the damn thing.”
“It’s a raven,” said Chett. “It eats corpses.”
Lark grinned. “His, might be?”
Or yours. It seemed to Chett that they needed the big man more than they needed Lark. “Stop fretting about Small Paul. You do your part, he’ll do his.”
Twilight was creeping through the woods by the time he rid himself of the Sisterman and sat down to edge his sword. It was bloody hard work with his gloves on, but he wasn’t about to take them off. Cold as it was, any fool that touched steel with a bare hand was going to lose a patch of skin.
The dogs whimpered when the sun went down. He gave them water and curses. “Half a night more, and you can find your own feast.” By then he could smell supper.
Dywen was holding forth at the cookfire as Chett got his heel of hardbread and a bowl of bean and bacon soup from Hake the cook. “The wood’s too silent,” the old forester was saying. “No frogs near that river, no owls in the dark. I never heard no deader wood than this.”
“Them teeth of yours sound pretty dead,” said Hake.
Dywen clacked his wooden teeth. “No wolves neither. There was, before, but no more. Where’d they go, you figure?”
“Someplace warm,” said Chett.
Of the dozen odd brothers who sat by the fire, four were his. He gave each one a hard squinty look as he ate, to see if any showed signs of breaking. Dirk seemed calm enough, sitting silent and sharpening his blade, the way he did every night. And Sweet Donnel Hill was all easy japes. He had white teeth and fat red lips and yellow locks that he wore in an artful tumble about his shoulders, and he claimed to be the bastard of some Lannister. Maybe he was at that. Chett had no use for pretty boys, nor for bastards neither, but Sweet Donnel seemed like to hold his own.
He was less certain about the forester the brothers called Sawwood, more for his snoring than for anything to do with trees. Just now he looked so restless he might never snore again. And Maslyn was worse. Chett could see sweat trickling down his face, despite the frigid wind. The beads of moisture sparkled in the firelight, like so many little wet jewels. Maslyn wasn’t eating neither, only staring at his soup as if the smell of it was about to make him sick. I’ll need to watch that one, Chett thought.
“Assemble!” The shout came suddenly, from a dozen throats, and quickly spread to every part of the hilltop camp. “Men of the Night’s Watch! Assemble at the central fire!”
Frowning, Chett finished his soup and followed the rest.
The Old Bear stood before the fire with Smallwood, Locke, Wythers, and Blane ranged behind him in a row. Mormont wore a cloak of thick black fur, and his raven perched upon his shoulder, preening its black feathers. This can’t be good. Chett squeezed between Brown Bernarr and some Shadow Tower men. When everyone was gathered, save for the watchers in the woods and the guards on the ringwall, Mormont cleared his throat and spat. The spittle was frozen before it hit the ground. “Brothers,” he said, “men of the Night’s Watch.”
“Men!” his raven screamed. “Men! Men!”
“The wildlings are on the march, following the course of the Milkwater down out of the mountains. Thoren believes their van will be upon us ten days hence. Their most seasoned raiders will be with Harma Dogshead in that van. The rest will likely form a rearguard, or ride in close company with Mance Rayder himself. Elsewhere their fighters will be spread thin along the line of march. They have oxen, mules, horses… but few enough. Most will be afoot, and ill-armed and untrained. Such weapons as they carry are more like to be stone and bone than steel. They are burdened with women, children, herds of sheep and goats, and all their worldly goods besides. In short, though they are numerous, they are vulnerable… and they do not know that we are here. Or so we must pray.”
They know, thought Chett. You bloody old pus bag, they know, certain as sunrise. Qhorin Halfhand hasn’t come back, has he? Nor Jarman Buckwell. If any of them got caught, you know damned well the wildlings will have wrung a song or two out of them by now.
Smallwood stepped forward. “Mance Rayder means to break the Wall and bring red war to the Seven Kingdoms. Well, that’s a game two can play. On the morrow we’ll bring the war to him.”
“We ride at dawn with all our strength,” the Old Bear said as a murmur went through the assembly. “We will ride north, and loop around to the west. Harma’s van will be well past the Fist by the time we turn. The foothills of the Frostfangs are full of narrow winding valleys made for ambush. Their line of march will stretch for many miles. We shall fall on them in several places at once, and make them swear we were three thousand, not three hundred.”
“We’ll hit hard and be away before their horsemen can form up to face us,” Thoren Smallwood said. “If they pursue, we’ll lead them a merry chase, then wheel and hit again farther down the column. We’ll burn their wagons, scatter their herds, and slay as many as we can. Mance Rayder himself, if we find him. If they break and return to their hovels, we’ve won. If not, we’ll harry them all the way to the Wall, and see to it that they leave a trail of corpses to mark their progress.”
“There are thousands,” someone called from behind Chett.
“We’ll die.” That was Maslyn’s voice, green with fear.
“Die,” screamed Mormont’s raven, flapping its black wings. “Die, die, die.”
“Many of us,” the Old Bear said. “Mayhaps even all of us. But as another Lord Commander said a thousand years ago, that is why they dress us in black. Remember your words, brothers. For we are the swords in the darkness, the watchers on the walls…”
“The fire that burns against the cold.” Ser Mallador Locke drew his longsword.
“The light that brings the dawn,” others answered, and more swords were pulled from scabbards.
Then all of them were drawing, and it was near three hundred upraised swords and as many voices crying, “The horn that wakes the sleepers! The shield that guards the realms of men!” Chett had no choice but to join his voice to the others. The air was misty with their breath, and firelight glinted off the steel. He was pleased to see Lark and Softfoot and Sweet Donnel Hill joining in, as if they were as big fools as the rest. That was good. No sense to draw attention, when their hour was so close.
When the shouting died away, once more he heard the sound of the wind picking at the ringwall. The flames swirled and shivered, as if they too were cold, and in the sudden quiet the Old Bear’s raven cawed loudly and once again said, “Die.”
Clever bird, thought Chett as the officers dismissed them, warning everyone to get a good meal and a long rest tonight. Chett crawled under his furs near the dogs, his head full of things that could go wrong. What if that bloody oath gave one of his a change of heart? Or Small Paul forgot and tried to kill Mormont during the second watch in place of the third? Or Maslyn lost his courage, or someone turned informer, or…
He found himself listening to the night. The wind did sound like a wailing child, and from time to time he could hear men’s voices, a horse’s whinny, a log spitting in the fire. But nothing else. So quiet.
He could see Bessa’s face floating before him. It wasn’t the knife I wanted to put in you, he wanted to tell her. I picked you flowers, wild roses and tansy and goldencups, it took me all morning. His heart was thumping like a drum, so loud he feared it might wake the camp. Ice caked his beard all around his mouth. Where did that come from, with Bessa? Whenever he’d thought of her before, it had only been to remember the way she’d looked, dying. What was wrong with him? He could hardly breathe. Had he gone to sleep? He got to his knees, and something wet and cold touched his nose. Chett looked up.
Snow was falling.
He could feel tears freezing to his cheeks. It isn’t fair, he wanted to scream. Snow would ruin everything he’d worked for, all his careful plans. It was a heavy fall, thick white flakes coming down all about him. How would they find their food caches in the snow, or the game trail they meant to follow east? They won’t need Dywen nor Bannen to hunt us down neither, not if we’re tracking through fresh snow. And snow hid the shape of the ground, especially by night. A horse could stumble over a root, break a leg on a stone. We’re done, he realized. Done before we began. We’re lost. There’d be no lord’s life for the leechman’s son, no keep to call his own, no wives nor crowns. Only a wildling’s sword in his belly, and then an unmarked grave. The snow’s taken it all from me… the bloody snow…
Snow had ruined him once before. Snow and his pet pig.
Chett got to his feet. His legs were stiff, and the falling snowflakes turned the distant torches to vague orange glows. He felt as though he were being attacked by a cloud of pale cold bugs. They settled on his shoulders, on his head, they flew at his nose and his eyes. Cursing, he brushed them off. Samwell Tarly, he remembered. I can still deal with Ser Piggy. He wrapped his scarf around his face, pulled up his hood, and went striding through the camp to where the coward slept.
The snow was falling so heavily that he got lost among the tents, but finally he spotted the snug little windbreak the fat boy had made for himself between a rock and the raven cages. Tarly was buried beneath a mound of black wool blankets and shaggy furs. The snow was drifting in to cover him. He looked like some kind of soft round mountain. Steel whispered on leather faint as hope as Chett eased his dagger from its sheath. One of the ravens quorked. “Snow,” another muttered, peering through the bars with black eyes. The first added a “Snow” of its own. He edged past them, placing each foot carefully. He would clap his left hand down over the fat boy’s mouth to muffle his cries, and then…
He stopped midstep, swallowing his curse as the sound of the horn shuddered through the camp, faint and far, yet unmistakable. Not now. Gods be damned, not NOW! The Old Bear had hidden far-eyes in a ring of trees around the Fist, to give warning of any approach. Jarman Buckwell’s back from the Giant’s Stair, Chett figured, or Qhorin Half-hand from the Skirling Pass. A single blast of the horn meant brothers returning. If it was the Halfhand, Jon Snow might be with him, alive.
Sam Tarly sat up puffy-eyed and stared at the snow in confusion. The ravens were cawing noisily, and Chett could hear his dogs baying. Half the bloody camp’s awake. His gloved fingers clenched around the dagger’s hilt as he waited for the sound to die away. But no sooner had it gone than it came again, louder and longer.
“Gods,” he heard Sam Tarly whimper. The fat boy lurched to his knees, his feet tangled in his cloak and blankets. He kicked them away and reached for a chainmail hauberk he’d hung on the rock nearby. As he slipped the huge tent of a garment down over his head and wriggled into it, he spied Chett standing there. “Was it two?” he asked. “I dreamed I heard two blasts…”
“No dream,” said Chett. “Two blasts to call the Watch to arms. Two blasts for foes approaching. There’s an axe out there with Piggy writ on it, fat boy. Two blasts means wildlings.” The fear on that big moon face made him want to laugh. “Bugger them all to seven hells. Bloody Harma. Bloody Mance Rayder. Bloody Smallwood, he said they wouldn’t be on us for another—”
The sound went on and on and on, until it seemed it would never die. The ravens were flapping and screaming, flying about their cages and banging off the bars, and all about the camp the brothers of the Night’s Watch were rising, donning their armor, buckling on swordbelts, reaching for battleaxes and bows. Samwell Tarly stood shaking, his face the same color as the snow that swirled down all around them. “Three,” he squeaked to Chett, “that was three, I heard three. They never blow three. Not for hundreds and thousands of years. Three means—”
“—Others.” Chett made a sound that was half a laugh and half a sob, and suddenly his smallclothes were wet, and he could feel the piss running down his leg, see steam rising off the front of his breeches.
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