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JON
Val waited by the gate in the predawn cold, wrapped up in a bearskin cloak so large it might well have fit Sam. Beside her was a garron, saddled and bridled, a shaggy grey with one white eye. Mully and Dolorous Edd stood with her, a pair of unlikely guards. Their breath frosted in the cold black air.

“You gave her a blind horse?” Jon said, incredulous.

“He’s only half-blind, m’lord,” offered Mully. “Elsewise he’s sound enough.” He patted the garron on the neck.

“The horse may be half-blind, but I am not,” said Val. “I know where I must go.”

“My lady, you do not have to do this. The risk—”

“—is mine, Lord Snow. And I am no southron lady but a woman of the free folk. I know the forest better than all your black-cloaked rangers. It holds no ghosts for me.”

I hope not. Jon was counting on that, trusting that Val could succeed where Black Jack Bulwer and his companions had failed. She need fear no harm from the free folk, he hoped … but both of them knew too well that wildlings were not the only ones waiting in the woods. “You have sufficient food?”

“Hard bread, hard cheese, oat cakes, salt cod, salt beef, salt mutton, and a skin of sweet wine to rinse all that salt out of my mouth. I will not die of hunger.”

“Then it’s time you were away.”

“You have my word, Lord Snow. I will return, with Tormund or without him.” Val glanced at the sky. The moon was but half-full. “Look for me on the first day of the full moon.”

“I will.” Do not fail me, he thought, or Stannis will have my head. “Do I have your word that you will keep our princess closely?” the king had said, and Jon had promised that he would. Val is no princess, though. I told him that half a hundred times. It was a feeble sort of evasion, a sad rag wrapped around his wounded word. His father would never have approved. I am the sword that guards the realm of men, Jon reminded himself, and in the end, that must be worth more than one man’s honor.

The road beneath the Wall was as dark and cold as the belly of an ice dragon and as twisty as a serpent. Dolorous Edd led them through with a torch in hand. Mully had the keys for the three gates, where bars of black iron as thick as a man’s arm closed off the passage. Spearmen at each gate knuckled their foreheads at Jon Snow but stared openly at Val and her garron.

When they emerged north of the Wall, through a thick door made of freshly hewn green wood, the wildling princess paused for a moment to gaze out across the snow-covered field where King Stannis had won his battle. Beyond, the haunted forest waited, dark and silent. The light of the half-moon turned Val’s honey-blond hair a pale silver and left her cheeks as white as snow. She took a deep breath. “The air tastes sweet.”

“My tongue is too numb to tell. All I can taste is cold.”

“Cold?” Val laughed lightly. “No. When it is cold it will hurt to breathe. When the Others come …”

The thought was a disquieting one. Six of the rangers Jon had sent out were still missing. It is too soon. They may yet be back. But another part of him insisted, They are dead, every man of them. You sent them out to die, and you are doing the same to Val. “Tell Tormund what I’ve said.”

“He may not heed your words, but he will hear them.” Val kissed him lightly on the cheek. “You have my thanks, Lord Snow. For the half-blind horse, the salt cod, the free air. For hope.”

Their breath mingled, a white mist in the air. Jon Snow drew back and said, “The only thanks I want is—”

“—Tormund Giantsbane. Aye.” Val pulled up the hood of her bearskin. The brown pelt was well salted with grey. “Before I go, one question. Did you kill Jarl, my lord?”

“The Wall killed Jarl.”

“So I’d heard. But I had to be sure.”

“You have my word. I did not kill him.” Though I might have if things had gone otherwise.

“This is farewell, then,” she said, almost playfully.

Jon Snow was in no mood for it. It is too cold and dark to play, and the hour is too late. “Only for a time. You will return. For the boy, if for no other reason.”

“Craster’s son?” Val shrugged. “He is no kin to me.”

“I have heard you singing to him.”

“I was singing to myself. Am I to blame if he listens?” A faint smile brushed her lips. “It makes him laugh. Oh, very well. He is a sweet little monster.”

“Monster?”

“His milk name. I had to call him something. See that he stays safe and warm. For his mother’s sake, and mine. And keep him away from the red woman. She knows who he is. She sees things in her fires.”

Arya, he thought, hoping it was so. “Ashes and cinders.”

“Kings and dragons.”

Dragons again. For a moment Jon could almost see them too, coiling in the night, their dark wings outlined against a sea of flame. “If she knew, she would have taken the boy away from us. Dalla’s boy, not your monster. A word in the king’s ear would have been the end of it.” And of me. Stannis would have taken it for treason. “Why let it happen if she knew?”

“Because it suited her. Fire is a fickle thing. No one knows which way a flame will go.” Val put a foot into a stirrup, swung her leg over her horse’s back, and looked down from the saddle. “Do you remember what my sister told you?”

“Yes.” A sword without a hilt, with no safe way to hold it. But Melisandre had the right of it. Even a sword without a hilt is better than an empty hand when foes are all around you.

“Good.” Val wheeled the garron toward the north. “The first night of the full moon, then.” Jon watched her ride away wondering if he would ever see her face again. I am no southron lady, he could hear her say, but a woman of the free folk.

“I don’t care what she says,” muttered Dolorous Edd, as Val vanished behind a stand of soldier pines. “The air is so cold it hurts to breathe. I would stop, but that would hurt worse.” He rubbed his hands together. “This is going to end badly.”

“You say that of everything.”

“Aye, m’lord. Usually I’m right.”

Mully cleared his throat. “M’lord? The wildling princess, letting her go, the men may say—”

“—that I am half a wildling myself, a turncloak who means to sell the realm to our raiders, cannibals, and giants.” Jon did not need to stare into a fire to know what was being said of him. The worst part was, they were not wrong, not wholly. “Words are wind, and the wind is always blowing at the Wall. Come.”

It was still dark when Jon returned to his chambers behind the armory. Ghost was not yet back, he saw. Still hunting. The big white direwolf was gone more oft than not of late, ranging farther and farther in search of prey. Between the men of the Watch and the wildlings down in Mole’s Town, the hills and fields near Castle Black had been hunted clean, and there had been little enough game to begin with. Winter is coming, Jon reflected. And soon, too soon. He wondered if they would ever see a spring.

Dolorous Edd made the trek to the kitchens and soon was back with a tankard of brown ale and a covered platter. Under the lid Jon discovered three duck’s eggs fried in drippings, a strip of bacon, two sausages, a blood pudding, and half a loaf of bread still warm from the oven. He ate the bread and half an egg. He would have eaten the bacon too, but the raven made off with it before he had the chance. “Thief,” Jon said, as the bird flapped up to the lintel above the door to devour its prize.

“Thief,” the raven agreed.

Jon tried a bite of sausage. He was washing the taste from his mouth with a sip of ale when Edd returned to tell him Bowen Marsh was without. “Othell’s with him, and Septon Cellador.”

That was quick. He wondered who was telling tales and if there was more than one. “Send them in.”

“Aye, m’lord. You’ll want to watch your sausages with this lot, though. They have a hungry look about them.”

Hungry was not the word Jon would have used. Septon Cellador appeared confused and groggy and in dire need of some scales from the dragon that had flamed him, whilst First Builder Othell Yarwyck looked as if he had swallowed something he could not quite digest. Bowen Marsh was angry. Jon could see it in his eyes, the tightness around his mouth, the flush to those round cheeks. That red is not from cold. “Please sit,” he said. “May I offer you food or drink?”

“We broke our fast in the commons,” said Marsh.

“I could do with more.” Yarwyck eased himself down onto a chair. “Good of you to offer.”

“Perhaps some wine?” said Septon Cellador.

“Corn,” screamed the raven from the lintel. “Corn, corn.”

“Wine for the septon and a plate for our First Builder,” Jon told Dolorous Edd. “Nothing for the bird.” He turned back to his visitors. “You’re here about Val.”

“And other matters,” said Bowen Marsh. “The men have concerns, my lord.”

And who is it who appointed you to speak for them? “As do I. Othell, how goes the work at the Nightfort? I have had a letter from Ser Axell Florent, who styles himself the Queen’s Hand. He tells me that Queen Selyse is not pleased with her quarters at Eastwatch-by-the-Sea and wishes to move into her husband’s new seat at once. Will that be possible?”

Yarwyck shrugged. “We’ve got most of the keep restored and put a roof back on the kitchens. She’d need food and furnishings and firewood, mind you, but it might serve. Not so many comforts as Eastwatch, to be sure. And a long way from the ships, should Her Grace wish to leave us, but … aye, she could live there, though it will be years before the place looks a proper castle. Sooner if I had more builders.”

“I could offer you a giant.”

That gave Othell a start. “The monster in the yard?”

“His name is Wun Weg Wun Dar Wun, Leathers tells me. A lot to wrap a tongue around, I know. Leathers calls him Wun Wun, and that seems to serve.” Wun Wun was very little like the giants in Old Nan’s tales, those huge savage creatures who mixed blood into their morning porridge and devoured whole bulls, hair and hide and horns. This giant ate no meat at all, though he was a holy terror when served a basket of roots, crunching onions and turnips and even raw hard neeps between his big square teeth. “He’s a willing worker, though getting him to understand what you want is not always easy. He speaks the Old Tongue after a fashion, but nothing of the Common. Tireless, though, and his strength is prodigious. He could do the work of a dozen men.”

“I … my lord, the men would never … giants eat human flesh, I think … no, my lord, I thank you, but I do not have the men to watch over such a creature, he …”

Jon Snow was unsurprised. “As you wish. We will keep the giant here.” Truth be told, he would have been loath to part with Wun Wun. ............
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