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Let them die,” said Queen Selyse.

It was the answer that Jon Snow had expected. This queen never fails to disappoint. Somehow that did not soften the blow. “Your Grace,” he persisted stubbornly, “they are starving at Hardhome by the thousands. Many are women—”

“—and children, yes. Very sad.” The queen pulled her daughter closer to her and kissed her cheek. The cheek unmarred by greyscale, Jon did not fail to note. “We are sorry for the little ones, of course, but we must be sensible. We have no food for them, and they are too young to help the king my husband in his wars. Better that they be reborn into the light.”

That was just a softer way of saying let them die.

The chamber was crowded. Princess Shireen stood beside her mother’s seat, with Patchface cross-legged at her feet. Behind the queen loomed Ser Axell Florent. Melisandre of Asshai stood closer to the fire, the ruby at her throat pulsing with every breath she took. The red woman too had her attendants—the squire Devan Seaworth and two of the guardsmen the king had left her.

Queen Selyse’s protectors stood along the walls, shining knights all in a row: Ser Malegorn, Ser Benethon, Ser Narbert, Ser Patrek, Ser Dorden, Ser Brus. With so many bloodthirsty wildlings infesting Castle Black, Selyse kept her sworn shields about her night and day. Tormund Giantsbane had roared to hear it. “Afraid of being carried off, is she? I hope you never said how big me member is, Jon Snow, that’d frighten any woman. I always wanted me one with a mustache.” Then he laughed and laughed.

He would not be laughing now.

Jon had wasted enough time here. “I’m sorry to have troubled Your Grace. The Night’s Watch will attend to this matter.”

The queen’s nostrils flared. “You still mean to ride to Hardhome. I see it on your face. Let them die, I said, yet you will persist in this mad folly. Do not deny it.”

“I must do as I think best. With respect, Your Grace, the Wall is mine, and so is this decision.”

“It is,” Selyse allowed, “and you will answer for it when the king returns. And for other decisions you have made, I fear. But I see that you are deaf to sense. Do what you must.”

Up spoke Ser Malegorn. “Lord Snow, who will lead this ranging?”

“Are you offering yourself, ser?”

“Do I look so foolish?”

Patchface jumped up. “I will lead it!” His bells rang merrily. “We will march into the sea and out again. Under the waves we will ride seahorses, and mermaids will blow seashells to announce our coming, oh, oh, oh.”

They all laughed. Even Queen Selyse allowed herself a thin smile. Jon was less amused. “I will not ask my men to do what I would not do myself. I mean to lead the ranging.”

“How bold of you,” said the queen. “We approve. Afterward some bard will make a stirring song about you, no doubt, and we shall have a more prudent lord commander.” She took a sip of wine. “Let us speak of other matters. Axell, bring in the wildling king, if you would be so good.”

“At once, Your Grace.” Ser Axell went through a door and returned a moment later with Gerrick Kingsblood. “Gerrick of House Redbeard,” he announced, “King of the Wildlings.”

Gerrick Kingsblood was a tall man, long of leg and broad of shoulder. The queen had dressed him in some of the king’s old clothes, it appeared. Scrubbed and groomed, clad in green velvets and an ermine half-cape, with his long red hair freshly washed and his fiery beard shaped and trimmed, the wildling looked every inch a southron lord. He could walk into the throne room at King’s Landing, and no one would blink an eye, Jon thought.

“Gerrick is the true and rightful king of the wildlings,” the queen said, “descended in an unbroken male line from their great king Raymun Redbeard, whereas the usurper Mance Rayder was born of some common woman and fathered by one of your black brothers.”

No, Jon might have said, Gerrick is descended from a younger brother of Raymun Redbeard. To the free folk that counted about as much as being descended from Raymun Redbeard’s horse. They know nothing, Ygritte. And worse, they will not learn.

“Gerrick has graciously agreed to give the hand of his eldest daughter to my beloved Axell, to be united by the Lord of Light in holy wedlock,” Queen Selyse said. “His other girls shall wed at the same time—the second daughter with Ser Brus Buckler and the youngest with Ser Malegorn of Redpool.”

“Sers.” Jon inclined his head to the knights in question. “May you find happiness with your betrothed.”

“Under the sea, men marry fishes.” Patchface did a little dance step, jingling his bells. “They do, they do, they do.”

Queen Selyse sniffed again. “Four marriages can be made as simply as three. It is past time that this woman Val was settled, Lord Snow. I have decided that she shall wed my good and leal knight, Ser Patrek of King’s Mountain.”

“Has Val been told, Your Grace?” asked Jon. “Amongst the free folk, when a man desires a woman, he steals her, and thus proves his strength, his cunning, and his courage. The suitor risks a savage beating if he is caught by the woman’s kin, and worse than that if she herself finds him unworthy.”

“A savage custom,” Axell Florent said.

Ser Patrek only chuckled. “No man has ever had cause to question my courage. No woman ever will.”

Queen Selyse pursed her lips. “Lord Snow, as Lady Val is a stranger to our ways, please send her to me, that I might instruct her in the duties of a noble lady toward her lord husband.”

That will go splendidly, I know. Jon wondered if the queen would be so eager to see Val married to one of her own knights if she knew Val’s feelings about Princess Shireen. “As you wish,” he said, “though if I might speak freely—”

“No, I think not. You may take your leave of us.”

Jon Snow bent his knee, bowed his head, withdrew.

He took the steps two at a time, nodding to the queen’s guards as he descended. Her Grace had posted men on every landing to keep her safe from murderous wildlings. Halfway down, a voice called out from above him. “Jon Snow.”

Jon turned. “Lady Melisandre.”

“We must speak.”

“Must we?” I think not. “My lady, I have duties.”

“It is those duties I would speak of.” She made her way down, the hem of her scarlet skirts swishing over the steps. It almost seemed as if she floated. “Where is your direwolf?”

“Asleep in my chambers. Her Grace does not allow Ghost in her presence. She claims he scares the princess. And so long as Borroq and his boar are about, I dare not let him loose.” The skinchanger was to accompany Soren Shieldbreaker to Stonedoor once the wayns carrying the Sealskinner’s clan to Greenguard returned. Until such time, Borroq had taken up residence in one of the ancient tombs beside the castle lichyard. The company of men long dead seemed to suit him better than that of the living, and his boar seemed happy rooting amongst the graves, well away from other animals. “That thing is the size of a bull, with tusks as long as swords. Ghost would go after him if he were loose, and one or both of them would not survive the meeting.”

“Borroq is the least of your concerns. This ranging …”

“A word from you might have swayed the queen.”

“Selyse has the right of this, Lord Snow. Let them die. You cannot save them. Your ships are lost—”

“Six remain. More than half the fleet.”

“Your ships are lost. All of them. Not a man shall return. I have seen that in my fires.”

“Your fires have been known to lie.”

“I have made mistakes, I have admitted as much, but—”

“A grey girl on a dying horse. Daggers in the dark. A promised prince, born in smoke and salt. It seems to me that you make nothing but mistakes, my lady. Where is Stannis? What of Rattleshirt and his spearwives? Where is my sister?”

“All your questions shall be answered. Look to the skies, Lord Snow. And when you have your answers, send to me. Winter is almost upon us now. I am your only hope.”

“A fool’s hope.” Jon turned and left her.

Leathers was prowling the yard outside. “Toregg has returned,” he reported when Jon emerged. “His father’s settled his people at Oakenshield and will be back this afternoon with eighty fighting men. What did the bearded queen have to say?”

“Her Grace can provide no help.”

“Too busy plucking out her chin hairs, is she?” Leathers spat. “Makes no matter. Tormund’s men and ours will be enough.”

Enough to get us there, perhaps. It was the journey back that concerned Jon Snow. Coming home, they would be slowed by thousands of free folk, many sick and starved. A river of humanity moving slower than a river of ice. That would leave them vulnerable. Dead things in the woods. Dead things in the water. “How many men are enough?” he asked Leathers. “A hundred? Two hundred? Five hundred? A thousand?” Should I take more men, or fewer? A smaller ranging would reach Hardhome sooner … but what good were swords without food? Mother Mole and her people were already at the point of eating their own dead. To feed them, he would need to bring carts and wagons, and draft animals to haul them—horses, oxen, dogs. Instead of flying through the wood, they would be condemned to crawl. “There is still much to decide. Spread the word. I want all the leading men in the Shieldhall when the evening watch begins. Tormund should be back by then. Where can I find Toregg?”

“With the little monster, like as not. He’s taken a liking to one o’ them milkmaids, I hear.”

He has taken a liking to Val. Her sister was a queen, why not her? Tormund had once thought to make himself the King-Beyond-the-Wall, before Mance had bested him. Toregg the Tall might well be dreaming the same dream. Better him than Gerrick Kingsblood. “Let them be,” said Jon. “I can speak with Toregg later.” He glanced up past the King’s Tower. The Wall was a dull white, the sky above it whiter. A snow sky. “Just pray we do not get another storm.”

Outside the armory, Mully and the Flea stood shivering at guard. “Shouldn’t you be inside, out of this wind?” Jon asked.

“That’d be sweet, m’lord,” said Fulk the Flea, “but your wolf’s in no mood for company today.”

Mully agreed. “He tried to take a bite o’ me, he did.”

“Ghost?” Jon was shocked.

“Unless your lordship has some other white wolf, aye. I never seen him like this, m’lord. All wild-like, I mean.”

He was not wrong, as Jon discovered for himself when he slipped inside the doors. The big white direwolf would not lie still. He paced from one end of the armory to the other, past the cold forge and back again. “Easy, Ghost,” Jon called. “Down. Sit, Ghost. Down.” Yet when he made to touch him, the wolf bristled and bared his teeth. It’s that bloody boar. Even in here, Ghost can smell his stink.

Mormont’s raven seemed agitated too. “Snow,” the bird kept screaming. “Snow, snow, snow.” Jon shooed him off, had Satin start a fire, then sent him out after Bowen Marsh and Othell Yarwyck. “Bring a flagon of mulled wine as well.”

“Three cups, m’lord?”

“Six. Mully and the Flea look in need of something warm. So will you.”

When Satin left, Jon seated himself and had another look at the maps of the lands north of the Wall. The fastest way to Hardhome was along the coast … from Eastwatch. The woods were thinner near the sea, the terrain mostly flatlands, rolling hills, and salt marshes. And when the autumn storms came howling, the coast got sleet and hail and freezing rain rather than snow. The giants are at Eastwatch, and Leathers says that some will help. From Castle Black the way was more difficult, right through the heart of the haunted forest. If the snow is this deep at the Wall, how much worse up there?

Marsh entered snuffling, Yarwyck dour. “Another storm,” the First Builder announced. “How are we to work in this? I need more builders.”

“Use the free folk,” Jon said.

Yarwyck shook his head. “More trouble than they’re worth, that lot. Sloppy, careless, lazy … some good woodworkers here and there, I’ll not deny it, but hardly a mason amongst them, and nary a smith. Strong backs, might be, but they won’t do as they are told. And us with all these ruins to turn back into forts. Can’t be done, my lord. I tell you true. It can’t be done.”

“It will be done,” said Jon, “or they will live in ruins.”

A lord needed men about him he could rely upon for honest counsel. Marsh and Yarwyck were no lickspittles, and that was to the good … but they were seldom any help either. More and more, he found he knew what they would say before he asked them.

Especially when it concerned the free folk, where their disapproval went bone deep. When Jon settled Stonedoor on Soren Shieldbreaker, Yarwyck complained that it was too isolated. How could they know what mischief Soren might get up to, off in those hills? When he conferred Oakenshield on Tormund Giantsbane and Queensgate on Morna White Mask, Marsh pointed out that Castle Black would now have foes on either side who could easily cut them off from the rest of the Wall. As for Borroq, Othell Yarwyck claimed the woods north of Stonedoor were full of wild boars. Who was to say the skinchanger would not make his own pig army?

Hoarfrost Hill and Rimegate still lacked garrisons, so Jon had asked their views on which of the remaining wildling chiefs and war lords might be best suited to hold them. “We have Brogg, Gavin the Trader, the Great Walrus … Howd Wanderer walks alone, Tormund says, but there’s still Harle the Huntsman, Harle the Handsome, Blind Doss … Ygon Oldfather commands a following, but most are his owns sons and grandsons. He has eighteen wives, half of them stolen on raids. Which of these …”

“None,” Bowen Marsh had said. “I know all these men by their deeds. We should be fitting them for nooses, not giving them our castles.”

“Aye,” Othell Yarwyck had agreed. “Bad and worse and worst makes a beggar’s choice. My lord had as well present us with a pack of wolves and ask which we’d like to tear our throats out.”

It was the same again with Hardhome. Satin poured whilst Jon told them of his audience with the queen. Marsh listened attentively, ignoring the mulled wine, whilst Yarwyck drank one cup and then another. But no sooner had Jon finished than the Lord Steward said, “Her Grace is wise. Let them die.”

Jon sat back. “Is that the only counsel you can offer, my lord? Tormund is bringing eighty men. How many should we send? Shall we call upon the giants? The spearwives at Long Barrow? If we have women with us, it may put Mother Mole’s people at ease.”

“Send women, then. Send giants. Send suckling babes. Is that what my lord wishes to hear?” Bowen Marsh rubbed at the scar he had won at the Bridge of Skulls. “Send them all. The more we lose, the fewer mouths we’ll have to feed.”

Yarwyck was no more helpful. “If the wildlings at Hardhome need saving, let the wildlings here go save them. Tormund knows the way to Hardhome. To hear him talk, he can save them all himself with his huge member.”

This was pointless, Jon thought. Pointless, fruitless, hopeless. “Thank you for your counsel, my lords.”

Satin helped them back into their cloaks. As they walked through the armory, Ghost sniffed at them, his tail upraised and bristling. My brothers. The Night’s Watch needed leaders with the wisdom of Maester Aemon, the learning of Samwell Tarly, the courage of Qhorin Halfhand, the stubborn strength of the Old Bear, the compassion of Donal Noye. What it had instead was them.

The snow was falling heavily outside. “Wind’s from the south,” Yarwyck observed. “It’s blowing the snow right up against the Wall. See?”

He was right. The switchback stair was buried almost to the first landing, Jon saw, and the wooden doors of the ice cells and storerooms had vanished behind a wall of white. “How many men do we have in ice cells?” he asked Bowen Marsh.

“Four living men. Two dead ones.”

The corpses. Jon had almost forgotten them. He had hoped to learn something from the bodies they’d brought back from the weirwood grove, but the dead men had stubbornly remained dead. “We need to dig those cells out.”

“Ten stewards and ten spades should do it,” said Marsh.

“Use Wun Wun too.”

“As you command.”

Ten stewards and one giant made short work of the drifts, but even when the doors were clear again, Jon was not satisfied. “Those cells will be buried again by morning. We’d best move the prisoners before they smother.”

“Karstark too, m’lord?” asked Fulk the Flea. “Can’t we just leave that one shivering till spring?”

“Would that we could.” Cregan Karstark had taken to howling in the night of late, and throwing frozen feces at whoever came to feed him. That had not made him beloved of his guards. “Take him to the Lord Commander’s Tower. The undervault should hold him.” Though partly collapsed, the Old Bear’s former seat would be warmer than the............
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