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He was not a tall man, Tormund Giantsbane, but the gods had given him a broad chest and massive belly. Mance Rayder had named him Tormund Horn-Blower for the power of his lungs, and was wont to say that Tormund could laugh the snow off mountaintops. In his wroth, his bellows reminded Jon of a mammoth trumpeting.

That day Tormund bellowed often and loudly. He roared, he shouted, he slammed his fist against the table so hard that a flagon of water overturned and spilled. A horn of mead was never far from his hand, so the spittle he sprayed when making threats was sweet with honey. He called Jon Snow a craven, a liar, and a turncloak, cursed him for a black-hearted buggering kneeler, a robber, and a carrion crow, accused him of wanting to fuck the free folk up the arse. Twice he flung his drinking horn at Jon’s head, though only after he had emptied it. Tormund was not the sort of man to waste good mead. Jon let it all wash over him. He never raised his own voice nor answered threat with threat, but neither did he give more ground than he had come prepared to give.

Finally, as the shadows of the afternoon grew long outside the tent, Tormund Giantsbane—Tall-Talker, Horn-Blower, and Breaker of Ice, Tormund Thunderfist, Husband to Bears, Mead-King of Ruddy Hall, Speaker to Gods and Father of Hosts—thrust out his hand. “Done then, and may the gods forgive me. There’s a hundred mothers never will, I know.”

Jon clasped the offered hand. The words of his oath rang through his head. 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. And for him a new refrain: I am the guard who opened the gates and let the foe march through. He would have given much and more to know that he was doing the right thing. But he had gone too far to turn back. “Done and done,” he said.

Tormund’s grip was bone-crushing. That much had not changed about him. The beard was the same as well, though the face under that thicket of white hair had thinned considerably, and there were deep lines graven in those ruddy cheeks. “Mance should have killed you when he had the chance,” he said as he did his best to turn Jon’s hand to pulp and bone. “Gold for gruel, and boys … a cruel price. Whatever happened to that sweet lad I knew?”

They made him lord commander. “A fair bargain leaves both sides unhappy, I’ve heard it said. Three days?”

“If I live that long. Some o’ my own will spit on me when they hear these terms.” Tormund released Jon’s hand. “Your crows will grumble too, if I know them. And I ought to. I have killed more o’ you black buggers than I can count.”

“It might be best if you did not mention that so loudly when you come south of the Wall.”

“Har!” Tormund laughed. That had not changed either; he still laughed easily and often. “Wise words. I’d not want you crows to peck me to death.” He slapped Jon’s back. “When all my folk are safe behind your Wall, we’ll share a bit o’ meat and mead. Till then …” The wildling pulled off the band from his left arm and tossed it at Jon, then did the same with its twin upon his right. “Your first payment. Had those from my father and him from his. Now they’re yours, you thieving black bastard.”

The armbands were old gold, solid and heavy, engraved with the ancient runes of the First Men. Tormund Giantsbane had worn them as long as Jon had known him; they had seemed as much a part of him as his beard. “The Braavosi will melt these down for the gold. That seems a shame. Perhaps you ought to keep them.”

“No. I’ll not have it said that Tormund Thunderfist made the free folk give up their treasures whilst he kept his own.” He grinned. “But I’ll keep the ring I wear about me member. Much bigger than those little things. On you it’d be a torque.”

Jon had to laugh. “You never change.”

“Oh, I do.” The grin melted away like snow in summer. “I am not the man I was at Ruddy Hall. Seen too much death, and worse things too. My sons …” Grief twisted Tormund’s face. “Dormund was cut down in the battle for the Wall, and him still half a boy. One o’ your king’s knights did for him, some bastard all in grey steel with moths upon his shield. I saw the cut, but my boy was dead before I reached him. And Torwynd … it was the cold claimed him. Always sickly, that one. He just up and died one night. The worst o’ it, before we ever knew he’d died he rose pale with them blue eyes. Had to see to him m’self. That was hard, Jon.” Tears shone in his eyes. “He wasn’t much of a man, truth be told, but he’d been me little boy once, and I loved him.”

Jon put a hand on his shoulder. “I am so sorry.”

“Why? Weren’t your doing. There’s blood on your hands, aye, same as mine. But not his.” Tormund shook his head. “I still have two strong sons.”

“Your daughter …?”

“Munda.” That brought Tormund’s smile back. “Took that Longspear Ryk to husband, if you believe it. Boy’s got more cock than sense, you ask me, but he treats her well enough. I told him if he ever hurt her, I’d yank his member off and beat him bloody with it.” He gave Jon another hearty slap. “Time you were going back. Keep you any longer, they’re like to think we ate you.”

“Dawn, then. Three days from now. The boys first.”

“I heard you the first ten times, crow. A man’d think there was no trust between us.” He spat. “Boys first, aye. Mammoths go the long way round. You make sure Eastwatch expects them. I’ll make sure there’s no fighting, nor rushing at your bloody gate. Nice and orderly we’ll be, ducklings in a row. And me the mother duck. Har!” Tormund led Jon from his tent.

Outside the day was bright and cloudless. The sun had returned to the sky after a fortnight’s absence, and to the south the Wall rose blue-white and glittering. There was a saying Jon had heard from the older men at Castle Black: the Wall has more moods than Mad King Aerys, they’d say, or sometimes, the Wall has more moods than a woman. On cloudy days it looked to be white rock. On moonless nights it was as black as coal. In snowstorms it seemed carved of snow. But on days like this, there was no mistaking it for anything but ice. On days like this the Wall shimmered bright as a septon’s crystal, every crack and crevasse limned by sunlight, as frozen rainbows danced and died behind translucent ripples. On days like this the Wall was beautiful.

Tormund’s eldest son stood near the horses, talking with Leathers. Tall Toregg, he was called amongst the free folk. Though he barely had an inch on Leathers, he overtopped his father by a foot. Hareth, the strapping Mole’s Town boy called Horse, huddled near the fire, his back to the other two. He and Leathers were the only men Jon had brought with him to the parley; any more might have been seen as a sign of fear, and twenty men would have been of no more use than two if Tormund had been intent on blood. Ghost was the only protection Jon needed; the direwolf could sniff out foes, even those who hid their enmity behind smiles.

Ghost was gone, though. Jon peeled off one black glove, put two fingers in his mouth, and whistled. “Ghost! To me.”

From above came the sudden sound of wings. Mormont’s raven flapped from a limb of an old oak to perch upon Jon’s saddle. “Corn,” it cried. “Corn, corn, corn.”

“Did you follow me as well?” Jon reached to shoo the bird away but ended up stroking its feathers. The raven cocked its eye at him. “Snow,” it muttered, bobbing its head knowingly. Then Ghost emerged from between two trees, with Val beside him.

They look as though they belong together. Val was clad all in white; white woolen breeches tucked into high boots of bleached white leather, white bearskin cloak pinned at the shoulder with a carved weirwood face, white tunic with bone fastenings. Her breath was white as well … but her eyes were blue, her long braid the color of dark honey, her cheeks flushed red from the cold. It had been a long while since Jon Snow had seen a sight so lovely.

“Have you been trying to steal my wolf?” he asked her.

“Why not? If every woman had a direwolf, men would be much sweeter. Even crows.”

“Har!” laughed Tormund Giantsbane. “Don’t bandy words with this one, Lord Snow, she’s too clever for the likes o’ you and me. Best steal her quick, before Toregg wakes up and takes her first.”

What had that oaf Axell Florent said of Val? “A nubile girl, not hard to look upon. Good hips, good breasts, well made for whelping children.” All true enough, but the wildling woman was so much more. She had proved that by finding Tormund where seasoned rangers of the Watch had failed. She may not be a princess, but she would make a worthy wife for any lord.

But that bridge had been burned a long time ago, and Jon himself had thrown the torch. “Toregg is welcome to her,” he announced. “I took a vow.”

“She won’t mind. Will you, girl?”

Val patted the long bone knife on her hip. “Lord Crow is welcome to steal into my bed any night he dares. Once he’s been gelded, keeping those vows will come much easier for him.”

“Har!” Tormund snorted again. “You hear that, Toregg? Stay away from this one. I have one daughter, don’t need another.” Shaking his head, the wildling chief ducked back inside his tent.

As Jon scratched Ghost behind the ear, Toregg brought up Val’s horse for her. She still rode the grey garron that Mully had given her the day she left the Wall, a shaggy, stunted thing blind in one eye. As she turned it toward the Wall, she asked, “How fares the little monster?”

“Twice as big as when you left us, and thrice as loud. When he wants the teat, you can hear him wail in Eastwatch.” Jon mounted his own horse.

Val fell in beside him. “So … I brought you Tormund, as I said I would. What now? Am I to be returned to my old cell?”

“Your old cell is occupied. Queen Selyse has claimed the King’s Tower, for her own. Do you remember Hardin’s Tower?”

“The one that looks about to collapse?”

“It’s looked that way for a hundred years. I’ve had the top floor made ready for you, my lady. You will have more room than in the King’s Tower, though you may not be as comfortable. No one has ever called it Hardin’s Palace.”

“I would choose freedom over comfort every time.”

“Freedom of the castle you shall have, but I regret to say you must remain a captive. I can promise that you will not be troubled by unwanted visitors, however. My own men guard Hardin’s Tower, not the queen’s. And Wun Wun sleeps in the entry hall.”

“A giant as protector? Even Dalla could not boast of that.”

Tormund’s wildlings watched them pass, peering out from tents and lean-tos beneath leafless trees. For every man of fighting age, Jon saw three women and as many children, gaunt-faced things with hollow cheeks and staring eyes. When Mance Rayder had led the free folk down upon the Wall, his followers drove large herds of sheep and goats and swine before them, but now the only animals to be seen were the mammoths. If not for the ferocity of the giants, those would have been slaughtered too, he did not doubt. There was a lot of meat on a mammoth’s bones.

Jon saw signs of sickness too. That disquieted him more than he could say. If Tormund’s band were starved and sick, what of the thousands who had followed Mother Mole to Hardhome? Cotter Pyke should reach them soon. If the winds were kind, his fleet might well be on its way back to Eastwatch even now, with as many of the free folk as he could cram aboard.

“How did you fare with Tormund?” asked Val.

“Ask me a year from now. The hard part still awaits me. The part where I convince mine own to eat this meal I’ve cooked for them. None of them are going to like the taste, I fear.”

“Let me help.”

“You have. You brought me Tormund.”

“I can do more.”

Why not? thought Jon. They are all convinced she is a princess. Val looked the part and rode as if she had been born on horseback. A warrior princess, he decided, not some willowy creature who sits up in a tower, brushing her hair and waiting for some knight to rescue her. “I must inform the queen of this agreement,” he said. “You are welcome to come meet her, if you can find it in yourself to bend a knee.” It would never do to offend Her Grace before he even opened his mouth.

“May I laugh when I kneel?”

“You may not. This is no game. A river of blood runs between our peoples, old and deep and red. Stannis Baratheon is one of the few who favors admitting wildlings to the realm. I need his queen’s support for what I’ve done.”

Val’s playful smile died. “You have my word, Lord Snow. I will be a proper wildling princess for your queen.”

She is not my queen, he might have said. If truth be told, the day of her departure cannot come too fast for me. And if the gods are good, she will take Melisandre with her.

They rode the rest of the way in silence, Ghost loping at their heels. Mormont’s raven followed them as far as the gate, then flapped upward as the rest of them dismounted. Horse went ahead with a brand to light the way through the icy tunnel.

A small crowd of black brothers was waiting by the gate when Jon and his companions emerged south of the Wall. Ulmer of the Kingswood was amongst them, and it was the old archer who came forward to speak for the rest. “If it please m’lord, the lads were wondering. Will it be peace, m’lord? Or blood and iron?”

“Peace,” Jon Snow replied. “Three days hence, Tormund Giantsbane will lead his people through the Wall. As friends, not foes. Some may even swell our ranks, as brothers. It will be for us to make them welcome. Now back to your duties.” Jon handed the reins of his horse to Satin. “I must see Queen Selyse.” Her Grace would take it as a slight if he did not come to her at once. “Afterward I will have letters to write. Bring parchment, quills, and a pot of maester’s black to my chambers. Then summon Marsh, Yarwyck, Septon Cellador, Clydas.” Cellador would be half-drunk, and Clydas was a poor substitute for a real maester, but they were what he had. Till Sam returns. “The northmen too. Flint and Norrey. Leathers, you should be there as well.”

“Hobb is baking onion pies,” said Satin. “Shall I request that they all join you for supper?”

Jon considered. “No. Ask them to join me atop the Wall at sunset.” He turned to Val. “My lady. With me, if you please.”

“The crow commands, the captive must obey.” Her tone was playful. “This queen of yours must be fierce if the legs of grown men give out beneath them when they meet her. Should I have dressed in mail instead of wool and fur? These clothes were given to me by Dalla, I would sooner not get bloodstains all over them.”

“If words drew blood, you might have cause to fear. I think your clothes are safe enough, my lady.”

They made their way toward the King’s Tower, along fresh-shoveled pathways between mounds of dirty snow. “I have heard it said that your queen has a great dark beard.”

Jon knew he should not smile, but he did. “Only a mustache. Very wispy. You can count the hairs.”

“How disappointing.”

For all her talk about wanting to be mistress of her seat, Selyse Baratheon seemed in no great haste to abandon the comforts of Castle Black for the shadows of the Nightfort. She kept guards, of course—four men posted at the door, two outside on the steps, two inside by the brazier. Commanding them was Ser Patrek of King’s Mountain, clad in his knightly raiment of white and blue and silver, his cloak a spatter of five-pointed stars. When presented to Val, the knight sank to one knee to kiss her glove. “You are even lovelier than I was told, princess,” he declared. “The queen has told me much and more of your beauty.”

“How odd, when she has never seen me.” Val patted Ser Patrek on the head. “Up with you now, ser kneeler. Up, up.” She sounded as if she were talking to a dog.

It was all that Jon could do not to laugh. Stone-faced, he told the knight that they required audience with the queen. Ser Patrek sent one of the men-at-arms scrambling up the steps to inquire as to whether Her Grace would receive them. “The wolf stays here, though,” Ser Patrek insisted.

Jon had expected that. The direwolf made Queen Selyse anxious, almost as much as Wun Weg Wun Dar Wun. “Ghost, stay.”

They found Her Grace sewing by the fire, whilst her fool danced about to music only he could hear, the cowbells on his antlers clanging. “The crow, the crow,” Patchface cried when he saw Jon. “Under the sea the crows are white as snow, I know, I know, oh, oh, oh.” Princess Shireen was curled up in a window seat, her hood drawn up to hide the worst of the greyscale that had disfigured her face.

There was no sign of Lady Melisandre. For that much Jon was grateful. Soon or late he would need to face the red priestess, but he would sooner it was not in the queen’s presence. “Your Grace.” He took a knee. Val did likewise.

Queen Selyse set aside her sewing. “You may rise.”

“If it please Your Grace, may I present the Lady Val? Her sister Dalla was—”

“—mother to that squalling babe who keeps us awake at night. I know who she is, Lord Snow.” The queen sniffed. “You are fortunate that she returned to us before the king my husband, else it might have gone badly for you. Very badly indeed.”

“Are you the wildling princess?” Shireen asked Val.

“Some call me that,” said Val. “My sister was wife to Mance Rayder, the King-Beyond-the-Wall. She died giving him a son.”

“I’m a princess too,” Shireen announced, “but I never had a sister. I used to have a cousin once, before he sailed away. He was just a bastard, but I liked him.”

“Honestly, Shireen,” her mother said. “I am sure the lord commander did not come to hear about Robert’s by-blows. Patchface, be a good fool and take the princess to her room.”

The bells on his hat rang. “Away, away,” the fool sang. “Come with me beneath the sea, away, away, away.” He took the little princess by one hand and drew her from the room, skipping.

Jon said, “Your Grace, the leader of the free folk has agreed to my terms.”

Queen Selyse gave the tiniest of nods. “It was ever my lord husband’s wish to grant sanctuary to these savage peoples. So long as they keep the king’s peace and the king’s laws, they are welcome in our realm.” She pursed her lips. “I am told they have more giants with them.”

Val answered. “Almost two hundred of them, Your Grace. And more than eighty mammoths.”

The queen shuddered. “Dreadful creatures.” Jon could not tell if she was speaking of the mammoths or the giants. “Though such beasts might be useful to my lord husband in his battles.”

“That may be, Your Grace,” Jon said, “but the mammoths are too big to pass through our gate.”

“Cannot the gate be widened?”

“That … that would be unwise, I think.”

Selyse sniffed. “If you say so. No doubt you know about such things. Where do you mean to settle these wildlings? Surely Mole’s Town is not large enough to contain … how many are they?”

“Four thousand, Your Grace. They will help us garrison our abandoned castles, the better to defend the Wall.”

“I had been given to unders............
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