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That night he dreamt of wildlings howling from the woods, advancing to the moan of warhorns and the roll of drums. Boom DOOM boom DOOM boom DOOM came the sound, a thousand hearts with a single beat. Some had spears and some had bows and some had axes. Others rode on chariots made of bones, drawn by teams of dogs as big as ponies. Giants lumbered amongst them, forty feet tall, with mauls the size of oak trees.

“Stand fast,” Jon Snow called. “Throw them back.” He stood atop the Wall, alone. “Flame,” he cried, “feed them flame,” but there was no one to pay heed.

They are all gone. They have abandoned me.

Burning shafts hissed upward, trailing tongues of fire. Scarecrow brothers tumbled down, black cloaks ablaze. “Snow,” an eagle cried, as foemen scuttled up the ice like spiders. Jon was armored in black ice, but his blade burned red in his fist. As the dead men reached the top of the Wall he sent them down to die again. He slew a greybeard and a beardless boy, a giant, a gaunt man with filed teeth, a girl with thick red hair. Too late he recognized Ygritte. She was gone as quick as she’d appeared.

The world dissolved into a red mist. Jon stabbed and slashed and cut. He hacked down Donal Noye and gutted Deaf Dick Follard. Qhorin Halfhand stumbled to his knees, trying in vain to staunch the flow of blood from his neck. “I am the Lord of Winterfell,” Jon screamed. It was Robb before him now, his hair wet with melting snow. Longclaw took his head off. Then a gnarled hand seized Jon roughly by the shoulder. He whirled …

 … and woke with a raven pecking at his chest. “Snow,” the bird cried. Jon swatted at it. The raven shrieked its displeasure and flapped up to a bedpost to glare down balefully at him through the predawn gloom.

The day had come. It was the hour of the wolf. Soon enough the sun would rise, and four thousand wildlings would come pouring through the Wall. Madness. Jon Snow ran his burned hand through his hair and wondered once again what he was doing. Once the gate was opened there would be no turning back. It should have been the Old Bear to treat with Tormund. It should have been Jaremy Rykker or Qhorin Halfhand or Denys Mallister or some other seasoned man. It should have been my uncle. It was too late for such misgivings, though. Every choice had its risks, every choice its consequences. He would play the game to its conclusion.

He rose and dressed in darkness, as Mormont’s raven muttered across the room. “Corn,” the bird said, and, “King,” and, “Snow, Jon Snow, Jon Snow.” That was queer. The bird had never said his full name before, as best Jon could recall.

He broke his fast in the cellar with his officers. Fried bread, fried eggs, blood sausages, and barley porridge made up the meal, washed down with thin yellow beer. As they ate they went over the preparations yet again. “All is in readiness,” Bowen Marsh assured him. “If the wildlings uphold the terms of the bargain, all will go as you’ve commanded.”

And if not, it may turn to blood and carnage. “Remember,” Jon said, “Tormund’s people are hungry, cold, and fearful. Some of them hate us as much as some of you hate them. We are dancing on rotten ice here, them and us. One crack, and we all drown. If blood should be shed today, it had best not be one of us who strikes the first blow, or I swear by the old gods and the new that I will have the head of the man who strikes it.”

They answered him with ayes and nods and muttered words, with “As you command,” and “It will be done,” and “Yes, my lord.” And one by one they rose and buckled on their swords and donned their warm black cloaks and strode out into the cold.

Last to leave the table was Dolorous Edd Tollett, who had come in during the night with six wagons from the Long Barrow. Whore’s Barrow, the black brothers called the fortress now. Edd had been sent to gather up as many spearwives as his wagons would hold and bring them back to join their sisters.

Jon watched him mop up a runny yolk with a chunk of bread. It was strangely comforting to see Edd’s dour face again. “How goes the restoration work?” he asked his old steward.

“Ten more years should do it,” Tollett replied in his usual gloomy tone. “Place was overrun with rats when we moved in. The spearwives killed the nasty buggers. Now the place is overrun with spearwives. There’s days I want the rats back.”

“How do you find serving under Iron Emmett?” Jon asked.

“Mostly it’s Black Maris serving under him, m’lord. Me, I have the mules. Nettles claims we’re kin. It’s true we have the same long face, but I’m not near as stubborn. Anyway I never knew their mothers, on my honor.” He finished the last of his eggs and sighed. “I do like me a nice runny egg. If it please m’lord, don’t let the wildlings eat all our chickens.”

Out in the yard, the eastern sky had just begun to lighten. There was not a wisp of cloud in sight. “We have a good day for this, it would seem,” Jon said. “A bright day, warm and sunny.”

“The Wall will weep. And winter almost on us. It’s unnatural, m’lord. A bad sign, you ask me.”

Jon smiled. “And if it were to snow?”

“A worse sign.”

“What sort of weather would you prefer?”

“The sort they keep indoors,” said Dolorous Edd. “If it please m’lord, I should get back to my mules. They miss me when I’m gone. More than I can say for them spearwives.”

They parted there, Tollett for the east road, where his wagons waited, Jon Snow for the stables. Satin had his horse saddled and bridled and waiting for him, a fiery grey courser with a mane as black and shiny as maester’s ink. He was not the sort of mount that Jon would have chosen for a ranging, but on this morning all that mattered was that he look impressive, and for that the stallion was a perfect choice.

His tail was waiting too. Jon had never liked surrounding himself with guards, but today it seemed prudent to keep a few good men beside him. They made a grim display in their ringmail, iron halfhelms, and black cloaks, with tall spears in their hands and swords and daggers on their belts. For this Jon had passed over all the green boys and greybeards in his command, choosing eight men in their prime: Ty and Mully, Left Hand Lew, Big Liddle, Rory, Fulk the Flea, Garrett Greenspear. And Leathers, Castle Black’s new master-at-arms, to show the free folk that even a man who had fought for Mance in the battle beneath the Wall could find a place of honor in the Night’s Watch.

A deep red blush had appeared in the east by the time they all assembled at the gate. The stars are going out, Jon thought. When next they reappeared, they would be shining down upon a world forever changed. A few queen’s men stood watching from beside the embers of Lady Melisandre’s nightfire. When Jon glanced at the King’s Tower, he glimpsed a flash of red behind a window. Of Queen Selyse he saw no sign.

It was time. “Open the gate,” Jon Snow said softly.

“OPEN THE GATE!” Big Liddle roared. His voice was thunder.

Seven hundred feet above, the sentries heard and raised their warhorns to their lips. The sound rang out, echoing off the Wall and out across the world. Ah?oo?oo?oo?oo?oo?oo?oo?oo?oo?oo?oo?oo?ooo?ooo. One long blast. For a thousand years or more, that sound had meant rangers coming home. Today it meant something else. Today it called the free folk to their new homes.

On either end of the long tunnel, gates swung open and iron bars unlocked. Dawn light shimmered on the ice above, pink and gold and purple. Dolorous Edd had not been wrong. The Wall would soon be weeping. Gods grant it weeps alone.

Satin led them underneath the ice, lighting the way through the gloom of the tunnel with an iron lantern. Jon followed, leading his horse. Then his guardsmen. After them came Bowen Marsh and his stewards, a score of them, every man assigned a task. Above, Ulmer of the Kingswood had the Wall. Two score of Castle Black’s best bowmen stood with him, ready to respond to any trouble down below with a rain of arrows.

North of the Wall, Tormund Giantsbane was waiting, mounted on a runty little garron that looked far too weedy to support his weight. His two remaining sons were with him, tall Toregg and young Dryn, along with three score warriors.

“Har!” Tormund called. “Guards, is it? Now where’s the trust in that, crow?”

“You brought more men than I did.”

“So I did. Come here by me, lad. I want my folk to see you. I got thousands ne’er saw a lord commander, grown men who were told as boys that your rangers would eat them if they didn’t behave. They need to see you plain, a long-faced lad in an old black cloak. They need to learn that the Night’s Watch is naught t’be feared.”

That is a lesson I would sooner they never learned. Jon peeled the glove off his burned hand, put two fingers in his mouth, and whistled. Ghost came racing from the gate. Tormund’s horse shied so hard that the wildling almost lost his saddle. “Naught to be feared?” Jon said. “Ghost, stay.”

“You are a black-hearted bastard, Lord Crow.” Tormund Horn-Blower lifted his own warhorn to his lips. The sound of it echoed off the ice like rolling thunder, and the first of the free folk began to stream toward the gate.

From dawn till dusk Jon watched the wildlings pass.

The hostages went first—one hundred boys between the ages of eight and sixteen. “Your blood price, Lord Crow,” Tormund declared. “I hope the wailing o’ their poor mothers don’t haunt your dreams at night.” Some of the boys were led to the gate by a mother or a father, others by older siblings. More came alone. Fourteen- and fifteen-year-old boys were almost men, and did not want to be seen clinging to a woman’s skirts.

Two stewards counted the boys as they went by, noting each name on long sheepskin scrolls. A third collected their valuables for the toll and wrote that down as well. The boys were going to a place that none had ever been before, to serve an order that had been the enemy of their kith and kin for thousands of years, yet Jon saw no tears, heard no wailing mothers. These are winter’s people, he reminded himself. Tears freeze upon your cheeks where they come from. Not a single hostage balked or tried to slink away when his turn came to enter that gloomy tunnel.

Almost all the boys were thin, some past the point of gauntness, with spindly shanks and arms like twigs. That was no more than Jon expected. Elsewise they came in every shape and size and color. He saw tall boys and short boys, brown-haired boys and black-haired boys, honey blonds and strawberry blonds and redheads kissed by fire, like Ygritte. He saw boys with scars, boys with limps, boys with pockmarked faces. Many of the older boys had downy cheeks or wispy little mustachios, but there was one fellow with a beard as thick as Tormund’s. Some dressed in fine soft furs, some in boiled leather and oddments of armor, more in wool and sealskins, a few in rags. One was naked. Many had weapons: sharpened spears, stone-headed mauls, knives made of bone or stone or dragonglass, spiked clubs, tanglenets, even here and there a rust-eaten old sword. The Hornfoot boys walked blithe and barefoot through the snowdrifts. Other lads had bear-paws on their boots and walked on top of the same drifts, never sinking through the crust. Six boys arrived on horses, two on mules. A pair of brothers turned up with a goat. The biggest hostage was six-and-a-half feet tall but had a baby’s face; the smallest was a runty boy who claimed nine years but looked no more than six.

Of special note were the sons of men of renown. Tormund took care to point them out as they went by. “The boy there is the son of Soren Shieldbreaker,” he said of one tall lad. “Him with the red hair, he’s Gerrick Kingsblood’s get. Comes o’ the line o’ Raymun Redbeard, to hear him tell it. The line o’ Redbeard’s little brother, you want it true.” Two boys looked enough alike to be twins, but Tormund insisted they were cousins, born a year apart. “One was sired by Harle the Huntsman, t’other by Harle the Handsome, both on the same woman. Fathers hate each other. I was you, I’d send one to Eastwatch and t’other to your Shadow Tower.”

Other hostages were named as sons of Howd Wanderer, of Brogg, of Devyn Sealskinner, Kyleg of the Wooden Ear, Morna White Mask, the Great Walrus …

“The Great Walrus? Truly?”

“They have queer names along the Frozen Shore.”

Three hostages were sons of Alfyn Crowkiller, an infamous raider slain by Qhorin Halfhand. Or so Tormund insisted. “They do not look like brothers,” Jon observed.

“Half-brothers, born o’ different mothers. Alfyn’s member was a wee thing, even smaller than yours, but he was never shy with where he stuck it. Had a son in every village, that one.”

Of a certain runty rat-faced boy, Tormund said, “That one’s a whelp of Varamyr Sixskins. You remember Varamyr, Lord Crow?”

He did. “The skinchanger.”

“Aye, he was that. A vicious little runt besides. Dead now, like as not. No one’s seen him since the battle.”

Two of the boys were girls in disguise. When Jon saw them, he dispatched Rory and Big Liddle to bring them to him. One came meekly enough, the other kicking and biting. This could end badly. “Do these two have famous fathers?”

“Har! Them skinny things? Not likely. Picked by lot.”

“They’re girls.”

“Are they?” Tormund squinted at the pair of them from his saddle. “Me and Lord Crow made a wager on which o’ you has the biggest member. Pull them breeches down, give us a look.”

One of the girls turned red. The other glared defiantly. “You leave us alone, Tormund Giantstink. You let us go.”

“Har! You win, crow. Not a cock between ’em. The little one’s got her a set o’ balls, though. A spearwife in the making, her.” He called to his own men. “Go find them something girly to put on before Lord Snow wets his smallclothes.”

“I’ll need two boys to take their places.”

“How’s that?” Tormund scratched his beard. “A hostage is a hostage, seems to me. That big sharp sword o’ yours can snick a girl’s head off as easy as a boy’s. A father loves his daughters too. Well, most fathers.”

It is not their fathers who concern me. “Did Mance ever sing of Brave Danny Flint?”

“Not as I recall. Who was he?”

“A girl who dressed up like a boy to take the black. Her song is sad and pretty. What happened to her wasn’t.” In some versions of the song, her ghost still walked the Nightfort. “I’ll send the girls to Long Barrow.” The only men there were Iron Emmett and Dolorous Edd, both of whom he trusted. That was not something he could say of all his brothers.

The wildling understood. “Nasty birds, you crows.” He spat. “Two more boys, then. You’ll have them.”

When nine-and-ninety hostages had shuffled by them to pass beneath the Wall, Tormund Giantsbane produced the last one. “My son Dryn. You’ll see he’s well taken care of, crow, or I’ll cook your black liver up and eat it.”

Jon gave the boy a close inspection. Bran’s age, or the age he would have been if Theon had not killed him. Dryn had none of Bran’s sweetness, though. He was a chunky boy, with short legs, thick arms, and a wide red face—a miniature version of his father, with a shock of dark brown hair. “He’ll serve as my own page,” Jon promised Tormund.

“Hear that, Dryn? See that you don’t get above yourself.” To Jon he said, “He’ll need a good beating from time to time. Be careful o’ his teeth, though. He bites.” He reached down for his horn again, raised it, and blew another blast.

This time it was warriors who came forward. And not just one hundred of them. Five hundred, Jon Snow judged, as they moved out from beneath the trees, perhaps as many as a thousand. One in every ten of them came mounted but all of them came armed. Across their backs they bore round wicker shields covered with hides and boiled leather, displaying painted images of snakes and spiders, severed heads, bloody hammers, broken skulls, and demons. A few were clad in stolen steel, dinted oddments of armor looted from the corpses of fallen rangers. Others had armored themselves in bones, like Rattleshirt. All wore fur and leather.

There were spearwives with them, long hair streaming. Jon could not look at them without remembering Ygritte: the gleam of fire in her hair, the look on her face when she’d disrobed for him in the grotto, the sound of her voice. “You know nothing, Jon Snow,” she’d told him a hundred times.

It is as true now as it was then. “You might have sent the ............
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