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JON
When he heard the order, Ser Alliser’s mouth twisted into a semblance of a smile, but his eyes remained as cold and hard as flint. “So the bastard boy sends me out to die.”

“Die,” cried Mormont’s raven. “Die, die, die.”

You are not helping. Jon swatted the bird away. “The bastard boy is sending you out to range. To find our foes and kill them if need be. You are skilled with a blade. You were master-at-arms, here and at Eastwatch.”

Thorne touched the hilt of his longsword. “Aye. I have squandered a third of my life trying to teach the rudiments of swordplay to churls, muttonheads, and knaves. Small good that will do me in those woods.”

“Dywen will be with you, and another seasoned ranger.”

“We’ll learn you what you need t’ know, ser,” Dywen told Thorne, cackling. “Teach you how t’ wipe your highborn arse with leaves, just like a proper ranger.”

Kedge Whiteye laughed at that, and Black Jack Bulwer spat. Ser Alliser only said, “You would like me to refuse. Then you could hack off my head, same as you did for Slynt. I’ll not give you that pleasure, bastard. You’d best pray that it’s a wildling blade that kills me, though. The ones the Others kill don’t stay dead … and they remember. I’m coming back, Lord Snow.”

“I pray you do.” Jon would never count Ser Alliser Thorne amongst his friends, but he was still a brother. No one ever said you had to like your brothers.

It was no easy thing to send men into the wild, knowing that the chances were good that they might never return. They are all seasoned men, Jon told himself … but his uncle Benjen and his rangers had been seasoned men as well, and the haunted forest had swallowed them up without a trace. When two of them finally came straggling back to the Wall, it had been as wights. Not for the first time, or the last, Jon Snow found himself wondering what had become of Benjen Stark. Perhaps the rangers will come upon some sign of them, he told himself, never truly believing it.

Dywen would lead one ranging, Black Jack Bulwer and Kedge Whiteye the other two. They at least were eager for the duty. “Feels good to have a horse under me again,” Dywen said at the gate, sucking on his wooden teeth. “Begging your pardon, m’lord, but we were all o’ us getting splinters up our arses from sitting about.” No man in Castle Black knew the woods as well as Dywen did, the trees and streams, the plants that could be eaten, the ways of predator and prey. Thorne is in better hands than he deserves.

Jon watched the riders go from atop the Wall—three parties, each of three men, each carrying a pair of ravens. From on high their garrons looked no larger than ants, and Jon could not tell one ranger from another. He knew them, though. Every name was graven on his heart. Eight good men, he thought, and one … well, we shall see.

When the last of the riders had disappeared into the trees, Jon Snow rode the winch cage down with Dolorous Edd. A few scattered snowflakes were falling as they made their slow descent, dancing on the gusty wind. One followed the cage down, drifting just beyond the bars. It was falling faster than they were descending and from time to time would vanish beneath them. Then a gust of wind would catch it and push it upward once again. Jon could have reached through the bars and caught it if he had wished.

“I had a frightening dream last night, m’lord,” Dolorous Edd confessed. “You were my steward, fetching my food and cleaning up my leavings. I was lord commander, with never a moment’s peace.”

Jon did not smile. “Your nightmare, my life.”

Cotter Pyke’s galleys were reporting ever-increasing numbers of free folk along the wooded shores to the north and east of the Wall. Camps had been seen, half-built rafts, even the hull of a broken cog that someone had begun repairing. The wildlings always vanished into the woods when seen, no doubt to reemerge as soon as Pyke’s ships had passed. Meanwhile, Ser Denys Mallister was still seeing fires in the night north of the Gorge. Both commanders were asking for more men.

And where am I to get more men? Jon had sent ten of the Mole’s Town wildlings to each of them: green boys, old men, some wounded and infirm, but all capable of doing work of one sort or another. Far from being pleased, Pyke and Mallister had both written back to complain. “When I asked for men, I had in mind men of the Night’s Watch, trained and disciplined, whose loyalty I should never have reason to doubt,” wrote Ser Denys. Cotter Pyke was blunter. “I could hang them from the Wall as a warning to other wildlings to stay away, but I don’t see any other use for them,” Maester Harmune wrote for him. “I wouldn’t trust such to clean my chamber pot, and ten is not enough.”

The iron cage moved downward at the end of its long chain, creaking and rattling, until it finally jerked to a halt a foot above the ground at the base of the Wall. Dolorous Edd pushed open the door and hopped down, his boots breaking the crust of the last snow. Jon followed.

Outside the armory, Iron Emmett was still urging on his charges in the yard. The song of steel on steel woke a hunger in Jon. It reminded him of warmer, simpler days, when he had been a boy at Winterfell matching blades with Robb under the watchful eye of Ser Rodrik Cassel. Ser Rodrik too had fallen, slain by Theon Turncloak and his ironmen as he’d tried to retake Winterfell. The great stronghold of House Stark was a scorched desolation. All my memories are poisoned.

When Iron Emmett spied him, he raised a hand and combat ceased. “Lord Commander. How may we serve you?”

“With your three best.”

Emmett grinned. “Arron. Emrick. Jace.”

Horse and Hop-Robin fetched padding for the lord commander, along with a ringmail hauberk to go over it, and greaves, gorget, and halfhelm. A black shield rimmed with iron for his left arm, a blunted longsword for his right hand. The sword gleamed silvery grey in the dawn light, almost new. One of the last to come from Donal’s forge. A pity he did not live long enough to put an edge on it. The blade was shorter than Longclaw but made of common steel, which made it heavier. His blows would be a little slower. “It will serve.” Jon turned to face his foes. “Come.”

“Which one do you want first?” asked Arron.

“All three of you. At once.”

“Three on one?” Jace was incredulous. “That wouldn’t be fair.” He was one of Conwy’s latest bunch, a cobbler’s son from Fair Isle. Maybe that explained it.

“True. Come here.”

When he did, Jon’s blade slammed him alongside his head, knocking him off his feet. In the blink of an eye the boy had a boot on his chest and a swordpoint at his throat. “War is never fair,” Jon told him. “It’s two on one now, and you’re dead.”

When he heard gravel crunch, he knew the twins were coming. Those two will make rangers yet. He spun, blocking Arron’s cut with the edge of his shield and meeting Emrick’s with his sword. “Those aren’t spears,” he shouted. “Get in close.” He went to the attack to show them how it was done. Emrick first. He slashed at his head and shoulders, right and left and right again. The boy got his shield up and tried a clumsy countercut. Jon slammed his own shield into Emrick’s, and brought him down with a blow to the lower leg … none too soon, because Arron was on him, with a crunching cut to the back of his thigh that sent him to one knee. That will leave a bruise. He caught the next cut on his shield, then lurched back to his feet and drove Arron across the yard. He’s quick, he thought, as the longswords kissed once and twice and thrice, but he needs to get stronger. When he saw relief in Arron’s eyes, he knew Emrick was behind him. He came around and dealt him a cut to the back of the shoulders that sent him crashing into his brother. By that time Jace had found his feet, so Jon put him down again. “I hate it when dead men get up. You’ll feel the same the day you meet a wight.” Stepping back, he lowered his sword.

“The big crow can peck the little crows,” growled a voice behind him, “but has he belly enough to fight a man?”

Rattleshirt was leaning against a wall. A coarse stubble covered his sunken cheeks, and thin brown hair was blowing across his little yellow eyes.

“You flatter yourself,” Jon said.

“Aye, but I’d flatten you.”

“Stannis burned the wrong man.”

“No.” The wildling grinned at him through a mouth of brown and broken teeth. “He burned the man he had to burn, for all the world to see. We all do what we have to do, Snow. Even kings.”

“Emmett, find some armor for him. I want him in steel, not old bones.”

Once clad in mail and plate, the Lord of Bones seemed to stand a little straighter. He seemed taller too, his shoulders thicker and more powerful than Jon would have thought. It’s the armor, not the man, he told himself. Even Sam could appear almost formidable, clad head to heel in Donal Noye’s steel. The wildling waved away the shield Horse offered him. Instead he asked for a two-handed sword. “There’s a sweet sound,” he said, slashing at the air. “Flap closer, Snow. I mean to make your feathers fly.”

Jon rushed him hard.

Rattleshirt took a step backwards and met the charge with a two-handed slash. If Jon had not interposed his shield, it might have staved his breastplate in and broken half his ribs. The force of the blow staggered him for a moment and sent a solid jolt up his arm. He hits harder than I would have thought. His quickness was another unpleasant surprise. They circled round each other, trading blow for blow. The Lord of Bones gave as good as he was getting. By rights the two-handed greatsword should have been a deal more cumbersome than Jon’s longsword, but the wildling wielded it with blinding speed.

Iron Emmett’s fledglings cheered their lord commander at the start, but the relentless speed of Rattleshirt’s attack soon beat them down to silence. He cannot keep this up for long, Jon told himself as he stopped another blow. The impact made him grunt. Even dulled, the greatsword cracked his pinewood shield and bent the iron rim. He will tire soon. He must. Jon slashed at the wildling’s face, and Rattleshirt pulled back his head. He hacked down at Rattleshirt’s calf, only to have him deftly leap the blade. The greatsword crashed down onto Jon’s shoulder, hard enough to ding his pouldron and numb the arm beneath. Jon backed away. The Lord of Bones came after, chortling. He has no shield, Jon reminded himself, and that monster sword’s too cumbersome for parries. I should be landing two blows for every one of his.

Somehow he wasn’t, though, and the blows he did land were having no effect. The wildling always seemed to be moving away or sliding sideways, so Jon’s longsword glanced off a shoulder or an arm. Before long he found himself giving more ground, trying to avoid the other’s crashing cuts and failing half the time. His shield had been reduced to kindling. He shook it off his arm. Sweat was running down his face and stinging his eyes beneath his helm. He is too strong and too quick, he realized, and with that greatsword he has weight and reach on me. It would have been a different fight if Jon had been armed with Longclaw, but …

His chance came on Rattleshirt’s next backswing. Jon threw himself forward, bulling into the other man, and they went down together, legs entangled. Steel slammed on steel. Both men lost their swords as they rolled on the hard ground. The wildling drove a knee between Jon’s legs. Jon lashed out with a mailed fist. Somehow Rattleshirt ended up on top, with Jon’s............
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