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The sun had broken through near midday, after seven days of dark skies and snow flurries. Some of the drifts were higher than a man, but the stewards had been shoveling all day and the paths were as clean as they were like to get. Reflections glimmered off the Wall, every crack and crevice glittering pale blue.

Seven hundred feet up, Jon Snow stood looking down upon the haunted forest. A north wind swirled through the trees below, sending thin white plumes of snow crystals flying from the highest branches, like icy banners. Elsewise nothing moved. Not a sign of life. That was not entirely reassuring. It was not the living that he feared. Even so …

The sun is out. The snow has stopped. It may be a moon’s turn before we have another chance as good. It may be a season. “Have Emmett assemble his recruits,” he told Dolorous Edd. “We’ll want an escort. Ten rangers, armed with dragonglass. I want them ready to leave within the hour.”

“Aye, m’lord. And to command?”

“That would be me.”

Edd’s mouth turned down even more than usual. “Some might think it better if the lord commander stayed safe and warm south of the Wall. Not that I’d say such myself, but some might.”

Jon smiled. “Some had best not say so in my presence.”

A sudden gust of wind set Edd’s cloak to flapping noisily. “Best go down, m’lord. This wind’s like to push us off the Wall, and I never did learn the knack of flying.”

They rode the winch lift back to the ground. The wind was gusting, cold as the breath of the ice dragon in the tales Old Nan had told when Jon was a boy. The heavy cage was swaying. From time to time it scraped against the Wall, starting small crystalline showers of ice that sparkled in the sunlight as they fell, like shards of broken glass.

Glass, Jon mused, might be of use here. Castle Black needs its own glass gardens, like the ones at Winterfell. We could grow vegetables even in the deep of winter. The best glass came from Myr, but a good clear pane was worth its weight in spice, and green and yellow glass would not work as well. What we need is gold. With enough coin, we could buy ‘prentice glassblowers and glaziers in Myr, bring them north, offer them their freedom for teaching their art to some of our recruits. That would be the way to go about it. If we had the gold. Which we do not.

At the base of the Wall he found Ghost rolling in a snowbank. The big white direwolf seemed to love fresh snow. When he saw Jon he bounded back onto his feet and shook himself off. Dolorous Edd said, “He’s going with you?”

“He is.”

“A clever wolf, him. And me?”

“You’re not.”

“A clever lord, you. Ghost’s the better choice. I don’t have the teeth for biting wildlings anymore.”

“If the gods are good, we won’t encounter any wildlings. I’ll want the grey gelding.”

Word spread fast at Castle Black. Edd was still saddling the grey when Bowen Marsh stomped across the yard to confront Jon at the stables. “My lord, I wish you would reconsider. The new men can take their vows in the sept as easily.”

“The sept is home to the new gods. The old gods live in the wood, and those who honor them say their words amongst the weirwoods. You know that as well as I.”

“Satin comes from Oldtown, and Arron and Emrick from the westerlands. The old gods are not their gods.”

“I do not tell men which god to worship. They were free to choose the Seven or the red woman’s Lord of Light. They chose the trees instead, with all the peril that entails.”

“The Weeping Man may still be out there, watching.”

“The grove is no more than two hours’ ride, even with the snow. We should be back by midnight.”

“Too long. This is not wise.”

“Unwise,” said Jon, “but necessary. These men are about to pledge their lives to the Night’s Watch, joining a brotherhood that stretches back in an unbroken line for thousands of years. The words matter, and so do these traditions. They bind us all together, highborn and low, young and old, base and noble. They make us brothers.” He clapped Marsh on his shoulder. “I promise you, we shall return.”

“Aye, my lord,” said the Lord Steward, “but will it be as living men or heads on spears with your eyes scooped out? You will be returning through the black of night. The snowdrifts are waist deep in places. I see that you are taking seasoned men with you, that is good, but Black Jack Bulwer knew these woods as well. Even Benjen Stark, your own uncle, he—”

“I have something they did not.” Jon turned his head and whistled. “Ghost. To me.” The direwolf shook the snow from his back and trotted to Jon’s side. The rangers parted to let him through, though one mare whinnied and shied away till Rory gave her reins a sharp tug. “The Wall is yours, Lord Bowen.” He took his horse by the bridle and walked him to the gate and the icy tunnel that snaked beneath the Wall.

Beyond the ice, the trees stood tall and silent, huddled in the thick white cloaks. Ghost stalked beside Jon’s horse as the rangers and recruits formed up, then stopped and sniffed, his breath frosting in the air. “What is it?” Jon asked. “Is someone there?” The woods were empty as far as he could see, but that was not very far.

Ghost bounded toward the trees, slipped between two white-cloaked pines, and vanished in a cloud of snow. He wants to hunt, but what? Jon did not fear for the direwolf so much as for any wildlings he might encounter. A white wolf in a white wood, silent as a shadow. They will never know he’s coming. He knew better than to go chasing him. Ghost would return when he wanted to and not before. Jon put his heels into his horse. His men fell in around them, the hooves of their garrons breaking through the icy crust to the softer snow beneath. Into the woods they went, at a steady walking pace, as the Wall dwindled behind them.

The soldier pines and sentinels wore thick white coats, and icicles draped the bare brown limbs of the broadleafs. Jon sent Tom Barleycorn ahead to scout for them, though the way to the white grove was oft trod and familiar. Big Liddle and Luke of Longtown slipped into the brush to east and west. They would flank the column to give warning of any approach. All were seasoned rangers, armed with obsidian as well as steel, warhorns slung across their saddles should they need to summon help.

The others were good men too. Good men in a fight, at least, and loyal to their brothers. Jon could not speak for what they might have been before they reached the Wall, but he did not doubt that most had pasts as black as their cloaks. Up here, they were the sort of men he wanted at his back. Their hoods were raised against the biting wind, and some had scarves wrapped about their faces, hiding their features. Jon knew them, though. Every name was graven on his heart. They were his men, his brothers.

Six more rode with them—a mix of young and old, large and small, seasoned and raw. Six to say the words. Horse had been born and raised in Mole’s Town, Arron and Emrick came from Fair Isle, Satin from the brothels of Oldtown at the other end of Westeros. All of them were boys. Leathers and Jax were older men, well past forty, sons of the haunted forest, with sons and grandsons of their own. They had been two of the sixty-three wildlings who had followed Jon Snow back to the Wall the day he made his appeal, so far the only two to decide they wanted a black cloak. Iron Emmett said they all were ready, or as ready as they were ever going to be. He and Jon and Bowen Marsh had weighed each man in turn and assigned him to an order: Leathers, Jax, and Emrick to the rangers, Horse to the builders, Arron and Satin to the stewards. The time had come for them to take their vows.

Iron Emmett rode at the head of the column, mounted on the ugliest horse Jon had ever seen, a shaggy beast that looked to be all hair and hooves. “Talk is there was some trouble at Harlot’s Tower last night,” the master-at-arms said.

“Hardin’s Tower.” Of the sixty-three who had come back with him from Mole’s Town, nineteen had been women and girls. Jon had housed them in the same abandoned tower where he had once slept when he had been new to the Wall. Twelve were spearwives, more than capable of defending both themselves and the younger girls from the unwanted attentions of black brothers. It was some of the men they’d turned away who’d given Hardin’s Tower its new, inflammatory name. Jon was not about to condone the mockery. “Three drunken fools mistook Hardin’s for a brothel, that’s all. They are in the ice cells now, contemplating their mistake.”

Iron Emmett grimaced. “Men are men, vows are words, and words are wind. You should put guards around the women.”

“And who will guard the guards?” You know nothing, Jon Snow. He had learned, though, and Ygritte had been his teacher. If he could not hold to his own vows, how could he expect more of his brothers? But there were dangers in trifling with wildling women. A man can own a woman, and a man can own a knife, Ygritte had told him once, but no man can own both. Bowen Marsh had not been all wrong. Hardin’s Tower was tinder waiting for a spark. “I mean to open three more castles,” Jon said. “Deep Lake, Sable Hall, and the Long Barrow. All garrisoned with free folk, under the command of our own officers. The Long Barrow will be all women, aside from the commander and chief steward.” There would be some mingling, he did not doubt, but the distances were great enough to make that difficult, at least.

“And what poor fool will get that choice command?”

“I am riding beside him.”

The look of mingled horror and delight that passed across Iron Emmett’s face was worth more than a sack of gold. “What have I done to make you hate me so, my lord?”

Jon laughed. “Have no fear, you won’t be alone. I mean to give you Dolorous Edd as your second and your steward.”

“The spearwives will be so happy. You might do well to bestow a castle on the Magnar.”

Jon’s smile died. “I might if I could trust him. Sigorn blames me for his father’s death, I fear. Worse, he was bred and trained to give orders, not to take them. Do not confuse the Thenns with free folk. Magnar means lord in the Old Tongue, I am told, but Styr was closer to a god to his people, and his son is cut from the same skin. I do not require men to kneel, but they do need to obey.”

“Aye, m’lord, but you had best do something with the Magnar. You’ll have trouble with the Thenns if you ignore them.”

Trouble is the lord commander’s lot, Jon might have said. His visit to Mole’s Town was giving him plenty, as it happened, and the women were the least of it. Halleck was proving to be just as truculent as he had feared, and there were some amongst the black brothers whose hatred of the free folk was bone deep. One of Halleck’s followers had already cut off a builder’s ear in the yard, and like as not that was just a taste of the bloodshed to come. He had to get the old forts open soon, so Harma’s brother could be sent off to garrison Deep Lake or Sable Hall. Just now, though, neither of those was fit for human habitation, and Othell Yarwyck and his builders were still off trying to restore the Nightfort. There were nights when Jon Snow wondered if he had not made a grievous mistake by preventing Stannis from marching all the wildlings off to be slaughtered. I know nothing, Ygritte, he thought, and perhaps I never will.

Half a mile from the grove, long red shafts of autumn sunlight were slanting down between the branches of the leafless trees, staining the snowdrifts pink. The riders crossed a frozen stream, between two jagged rocks armored in ice, then followed a twisting game trail to the northeast. Whenever the wind kicked up, sprays of loose snow filled the air and stung their eyes. Jon pulled his scarf up over his mouth and nose and raised the hood on his cloak. “Not far now,” he told the men. No one replied.

Jon smelled Tom Barleycorn before he saw him. Or was it Ghost who smelled him? Of late, Jon Snow sometimes felt as if he and the direwolf were one, even awake. The great white wolf appeared first, shaking off the snow. A few moments later Tom was there. “Wildlings,” he told Jon, softly. “In the grove.”

Jon brought the riders to a halt. “How many?”

“I counted nine. No guards. Some dead, might be, or sleeping. Most look to be women. One child, but there’s a giant too. Just the one that I saw. They got a fire burning, smoke drifting through the trees. Fools.”

Nine, and I have seven-and-ten. Four of his were green boys, though, and none were giants.

Jon was not of a mind to fall back to the Wall, however. If the wildlings are still alive, it may be we can bring them in. And if they are dead, well … a corpse or two could be of use. “We’ll continue on foot,” he said, dropping lightly to the frozen ground. The snow was ankle deep. “Rory, Pate, stay with the horses.” He might have given that duty to the recruits, but they would need to be blooded soon enough. This was as good a time as any. “Spread out and form a crescent. I want to close in on the grove from three sides. Keep the men to your right and left in sight, so the gaps do not widen. The snow should muffle our steps. Less chance of blood if we take them unawares.”

Night was falling fast. The shafts of sunlight had vanished when the last thin slice of the sun was swallowed beneath the western woods. The pink snow drifts were going white again, the color leaching out of them as the world darkened. The evening sky had turned the faded grey of an old cloak that had been washed too many times, and the first shy stars were coming out.

Ahead he glimpsed a pale white trunk that could only be a weirwood, crowned with a head of dark red leaves. Jon Snow reached back and pulled Longclaw from his sheath. He looked to right and left, gave Satin and Horse a nod, watched them pass it on to the men beyond. They rushed the grove together, kicking through drifts of old snow with no sound but their breathing. Ghost ran with them, a white shadow at Jon’s side.

The weirwoods rose in a circle around the edges of the clearing. There were nine, all roughly of the same age and size. Each one had a face carved into it, and no two faces were alike. Some were smiling, some were screaming, some were shouting at him. In the deepening glow their eyes looked black, but in daylight they would be blood-red, Jon knew. Eyes like Ghost’s.

The fire in the center of the grove was a small sad thing,............
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