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Jon was breaking his fast on applecakes and blood sausage when Samwell Tarly plopped himself down on the bench. “I’ve been summoned to the sept,” Sam said in an excited whisper. “They’re passing me out of training. I’m to be made a brother with the rest of you. Can you believe it?”
“Truly. I’m to assist Maester Aemon with the library and the birds. He needs someone who can read and write letters. ”
“You’ll do well at that,” Jon said, smiling.
Sam glanced about anxiously. “Is it time to go? I shouldn’t be late, they might change their minds. ” He was fairly bouncing as they crossed the weed-strewn courtyard. The day was warm and sunny. Rivulets of water trickled down the sides of the Wall, so the ice seemed to sparkle and shine.
Inside the sept, the great crystal caught the morning light as it streamed through the south-facing window and spread it in a rainbow on the altar. Pyp’s mouth dropped open when he caught sight of Sam, and Toad poked Grenn in the ribs, but no one dared say a word. Septon Celladar was swinging a censer, filling the air with fragrant incense that reminded Jon of Lady Stark’s little sept in Winterfell. For once the septon seemed sober.
The high officers arrived in a body; Maester Aemon leaning on Clydas, Ser Alliser cold-eyed and grim, Lord Commander Mormont resplendent in a black wool doublet with silvered bearclaw fastenings. Behind them came the senior members of the three orders: red-faced Bowen Marsh the Lord Steward, First Builder Othell Yarwyck, and Ser Jaremy Rykker, who commanded the rangers in the absence of Benjen Stark.
Mormont stood before the altar, the rainbow shining on his broad bald head. “You came to us outlaws,” he began, “poachers, rapers, debtors, killers, and thieves. You came to us children. You came to us alone, in chains, with neither friends nor honor. You came to us rich, and you came to us poor. Some of you bear the names of proud houses. Others have only bastards’ names, or no names at all. It makes no matter. All that is past now. On the Wall, we are all one house.
“At evenfall, as the sun sets and we face the gathering night, you shall take your vows. From that moment, you will be a Sworn Brother of the Night’s Watch. Your crimes will be washed away, your debts forgiven. So too you must wash away your former loyalties, put aside your grudges, forget old wrongs and old loves alike. Here you begin anew.
“A man of the Night’s Watch lives his life for the realm. Not for a king, nor a lord, nor the honor of this house or that house, neither for gold nor glory nor a woman’s love, but for the realm, and all the people in it. A man of the Night’s Watch takes no wife and fathers no sons. Our wife is duty. Our mistress is honor. And you are the only sons we shall ever know.
“You have learned the words of the vow. Think carefully before you say them, for once you have taken the black, there is no turning back. The penalty for desertion is death. ” The Old Bear paused for a moment before he said, “Are there any among you who wish to leave our company? If so, go now, and no one shall think the less of you. ”
No one moved.
“Well and good,” said Mormont. “You may take your vows here at evenfall, before Septon Celladar and the first of your order. Do any of you keep to the old gods?”
Jon stood. “I do, my lord. ”
“I expect you will want to say your words before a heart tree, as your uncle did,” Mormont said.
“Yes, my lord,” Jon said. The gods of the sept had nothing to do with him; the blood of the First Men flowed in the veins of the Starks.
He heard Grenn whispering behind him. “There’s no godswood here. Is there? I never saw a godswood. ”
“You wouldn’t see a herd of aurochs until they trampled you into the snow,” Pyp whispered back.
“I would so,” Grenn insisted. “I’d see them a long way off. ”
Mormont himself confirmed Grenn’s doubts. “Castle Black has no need of a godswood. Beyond the Wall the haunted forest stands as it stood in the Dawn Age, long before the Andals brought the Seven across the narrow sea. You will find a grove of weirwoods half a league from this spot, and mayhap your gods as well. ”
“My lord. ” The voice made Jon glance back in surprise. Samwell Tarly was on his feet. The fat boy wiped his sweaty palms against his tunic. “Might I . . . might I go as well? To say my words at this heart tree?”
“Does House Tarly keep the old gods too?” Mormont asked.
“No, my lord,” Sam replied in a thin, nervous voice. The high officers frightened him, Jon knew, the Old Bear most of all. “I was named in the light of the Seven at the sept on Horn Hill, as my father was, and his father, and all the Tarlys for a thousand years. ”
“Why would you forsake the gods of your father and your House?” wondered Ser Jaremy Rykker.
“The Night’s Watch is my House now,” Sam said. “The Seven have never answered my prayers. Perhaps the old gods will. ”
“As you wish, boy,” Mormont said. Sam took his seat again, as did Jon. “We have placed each of you in an order, as befits our need and your own strengths and skills. ” Bowen Marsh stepped forward and handed him a paper. The Lord Commander unrolled it and began to read. “Haider, to the builders,” he began. Haider gave a stiff nod of approval. “Grenn, to the rangers. Albett, to the builders. Pypar, to the rangers. ” Pyp looked over at Jon and wiggled his ears. “Samwell, to the stewards. ” Sam sagged with relief, mopping at his brow with,a scrap of silk. “Matthar, to the rangers. Dareon, to the stewards. Todder, to the rangers. Jon, to the stewards. ”
The stewards? For a moment Jon could not believe what he had heard. Mormont must have read it wrong. He started to rise, to open his mouth, to tell them there had been a mistake . . . and then he saw Ser Alliser studying him, eyes shiny as two flakes of obsidian, and he knew.
The Old Bear rolled up the paper. “Your firsts will instruct you in your duties. May all the gods preserve you, brothers. ” The Lord Commander favored them with a half bow, and took his leave. Ser Alliser went with him, a thin smile on his face. Jon had never seen the master-at-arms took quite so happy.
“Rangers with me,” Ser Jaremy Rykker called when they were gone. Pyp was staring at Jon as he got slowly to his feet. His ears were red. Grenn, grinning broadly, did not seem to realize that anything was amiss. Matt and Toad fell in beside them, and they followed Ser Jaremy from the sept.
“Builders,” announced lantern-jawed Othell Yarwyck. Haider and Albett trailed out after him.
Jon looked around him in sick disbelief. Maester Aemon’s blind eyes were raised toward the light he could not see. The septon was arranging crystals on the altar. Only Sam and Darcon remained on the benches; a fat boy, a singer . . . and him.
Lord Steward Bowen Marsh rubbed his plump hands together. “Samwell, you will assist Maester Aemon in the rookery and library. Chett is going to the kennels, to help with the hounds. You shall have his cell, so as to be close to the maester night and day. I trust you will take good care of him. He is very old and very precious to us.
“Dareon, I am told that you sang at many a high lord’s table and shared their meat and mead. We are sending you to Eastwatch. It may be your palate will be some help to Cotter Pyke when merchant galleys come trading. We are paying too dear for salt beef and pickled fish, and the quality of the olive oil we’re getting has been frightful, Present yourself to Borcas when you arrive, he will keep you busy between ships. ”
Marsh turned his smile on Jon. “Lord Commander Mormont has requested you for his personal steward, Jon. You’ll sleep in a cell beneath his chambers, in the Lord Commander’s tower. ”
“And what will my duties be?” Jon asked sharply. “Will I serve the Lord Commander’s meals, help him fasten his clothes, fetch hot water for his bath?”
“Certainly. ” Marsh frowned at Jon’s tone. “And you will run his messages, keep a fire burning in his chambers, change his sheets and blankets daily, and do all else that the Lord Commander might require of you. ”
“Do you take me for a servant?”
“No,” Maester Aemon said, from the back of the sept. Clydas helped him stand. “We took you for a man of the Night’s Watch . . . but perhaps we were wrong in that. ”
It was all Jon could do to stop himself from walking out. Was he supposed to churn butter and sew doublets like a girl for the rest of his days? “May I go?” he asked stiffly.
“As you wish,” Bowen Marsh responded.
Dareon and Sam left with him. They descended to the yard in silence. Outside, Jon looked up at the Wall shining in the sun, the melting ice creeping down its side in a hundred thin fingers. Jon’s rage was such that he would have smashed it all in an instant, and the world be damned.
“Jon,” Samwell Tarly said excitedly. “Wait. Don’t you see what they’re doing?”
Jon turned on him in a fury. “I see Ser Alliser’s bloody hand, that’s all I see. He wanted to shame me, and he has. ”
Dareon gave him a look. “The stewards are fine for the likes of you and me, Sam, but not for Lord Snow. ”
“I’m a better swordsman and a better rider than any of you,” Jon blazed back. “It’s not fair!”
“Fair?” Dareon sneered. “The girl was waiting for me, naked as the day she was born. She pulled me through the window, and you talk to me of fair?” He walked off.
“There is no shame in being a steward,” Sam said.
“Do you think I want to spend the rest of my life washing an old man’s smallclothes?”
“The old man is Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch,” Sam reminded him. “You’ll be with him day and night. Yes, you’ll pour his wine and see that his bed linen is fresh, but you’ll also take his letters, attend him at meetings, squire for him in battle. You’ll be as close to him as his shadow. You’ll know everything, be a part of everything . . . and the Lord Steward said Mormont asked for you himself!
“When I was little, my father used to insist that I attend him in the audience chamber whenever he held court. When he rode to Highgarden to bend his knee to Lord Tyrell, he made me come. Later, though, he started to take Dickon and leave me at home, and he no longer cared whether I sat through his audiences, so long as Dickon was there. He wanted his heir at his side, don’t you see? To watch and listen and learn from all he did. I’ll wager that’s why Lord Mormont requested you, Jon. What else could it be? He wants to groom you for command!”
Jon was taken aback. It was true, Lord Eddard had often made Robb part of his councils back at Winterfell. Could Sam be right? Even a bastard could rise high in the Night’s Watch, they said. “I never asked for this,” he said stubbornly.
“None of us are here for asking,” Sam reminded him.
And suddenly Jon Snow was ashamed.
Craven or not, Samwell Tarly had found the courage to accept his fate like a man. On the Wall, a man gets only what he earns, Benjen Stark had said the last night Jon had seen him alive. You’re no ranger, Jon, only a green boy with the smell of summer still on you. He’d heard it said that bastards grow up faster than other children; on the Wall, you grew up or you died.
Jon let out a deep sigh. “You have the right of it. I was acting the boy. ”
“Then you’ll stay and say your words with me?”
“The old gods will be expecting us. ” He made himself smile.
They set out late that afternoon. The Wall had no gates as such, neither here at Castle Black nor anywhere along its three hundred miles. They led their horses down a narrow tunnel cut through the ice, cold dark walls pressing in around them as the passage twisted and turned. Three times their way was blocked by iron bars, and they had to stop while Bowen Marsh drew out his keys and unlocked the massive chains that secured them. Jon could sense the vast weight pressing down on him as he waited behind the Lord Steward. The air was colder than a tomb, and more still. He felt a strange relief when they reemerged into the afternoon light on the north side of the Wall.
Sam blinked at the sudden glare and looked around apprehensively. “The wildlings . . . they wouldn’t . . . they’d never dare come this close to the Wall. Would they?”
“They never have. ” Jon climbed into his saddle. When Bowen Marsh and their ranger escort had mounted, Jon put two fingers in his mouth and whistled. Ghost came loping out of the tunnel.
The Lord Steward’s garron whickered and backed away from the direwolf. “Do you mean to take that beast?”
“Yes, my lord,” Jon said. Ghost’s head lifted. He seemed to taste the air. In the blink of an eye he was off, racing across the broad, weed-choked field to vanish in the trees.
Once they had entered the forest, they were in a different world. Jon had often hunted with his father and Jory and his brother Robb. He knew the wolfswood around Winterfell as well as any man. The haunted forest was much the same, and yet the feel of it was very different.
Perhaps it was all in the knowing. They had ridden past the end of the world; somehow that changed everything. Every shadow seemed darker, every sound more ominous. The trees pressed close and shut out the light of the setting sun. A thin crust of snow cracked beneath the hooves of their horses, with a sound like breaking bones. When the wind set the leaves to rustling, it was like a chilly finger tracing a path up Jon’s spine. The Wall was at their backs, and only the gods knew what lay ahead.
The sun was sinking below the trees when they reached their destination, a small clearing in the deep of the wood where nine weirwoods grew in a rough circle. Jon drew in a breath, and he saw Sam Tarly staring. Even in the wolfswood, you never found more than two or three of the white trees growing together; a grove of nine was unheard of. The forest floor was carpeted with fallen leaves, bloodred on top, black rot beneath. The wide smooth trunks were bone pale, and nine faces stared inward. The dried sap that crusted in the eyes was red and hard as ruby. Bowen Marsh commanded them to leave their horses outside the circle. “This is a sacred place, we will not defile it. ”
When they entered the grove, Samwell Tarly turned slowly looking at each face in turn. No two were quite alike. “They’re watching us,” he whispered. “The old gods. ”
“Yes. ” Jon knelt, and Sam knelt beside him.
They said the words together, as the last light faded in the west and grey day became black night.
“Hear my words, and bear witness to my vow,” they recited, their voices filling the twilit grove. “Night gathers, and now my watch begins. It shall not end until my death. I shall take no wife, hold no lands, father no children. I shall wear no crowns and win no glory. I shall live and die at my post. I am the sword in the darkness. 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. I pledge my life and honor to the Night’s Watch, for this night and all the nights to come. ”
The woods fell silent. “You knelt as boys,” Bowen Marsh intoned solemnly. “Rise now as men of the Night’s Watch. ”
Jon held out a hand to pull Sam back to his feet. The rangers gathered round to offer smiles and congratulations, all but the gnarled old forester Dywen. “Best we be starting back, m’lord,” he said to Bowen Marsh. “Dark’s falling, and there’s something in the smell o’ the night that I mislike. ”
And suddenly Ghost was back, stalking softly between two weirwoods. White fur and red eyes, Jon realized, disquieted. Like the trees . . .
The wolf had something in his jaws. Something black. “What’s he got there?” asked Bowen Marsh, frowning.
“To me, Ghost. ” Jon knelt. “Bring it here. ”
The direwolf trotted to him. Jon heard Samwell Tarly’s sharp intake of breath.
“Gods be good,” Dywen muttered. “That’s a hand. ”