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JON
The world was grey darkness, smelling of pine and moss and cold. Pale mists rose from the black earth as the riders threaded their way through the scatter of stones and scraggly trees, down toward the welcoming fires strewn like jewels across the floor of the river valley below. There were more fires than Jon Snow could count, hundreds of fires, thousands, a second river of flickery lights along the banks of the icy white Milkwater. The fingers of his sword hand opened and closed.  They descended the ridge without banners or trumpets, the quiet broken only by the distant murmur of the river, the clop of hooves, and the clacking of Rattleshirt’s bone armor. Somewhere above an eagle soared on great blue-grey wings, while below came men and dogs and horses and one white direwolf.  A stone bounced down the slope, disturbed by a passing hoof, and Jon saw Ghost turn his head at the sudden sound. He had followed the riders at a distance all day, as was his custom, but when the moon rose over the soldier pines he’d come bounding up, red eyes aglow. Rattleshirt’s dogs greeted him with a chorus of snarls and growls and wild barking, as ever, but the direwolf paid them no mind. Six days ago, the largest hound had attacked him from behind as the wildlings camped for the night, but Ghost had turned and lunged, sending the dog fleeing with a bloody haunch. The rest of the pack maintained a healthy distance after that.  Jon Snow’s garron whickered softly, but a touch and a soft word soon quieted the animal. Would that his own fears could be calmed so easily. He was all in black, the black of the Night’s Watch, but the enemy rode before and behind. Wildlings, and I am with them. Ygritte wore the cloak of Qhorin Halfhand. Lenyl had his hauberk, the big spearwife Ragwyle his gloves, one of the bowmen his boots. Qhorin’s helm had been won by the short homely man called Longspear Ryk, but it fit poorly on his narrow head, so he’d given that to Ygritte as well. And Rattleshirt had Qhorin’s bones in his bag, along with the bloody head of Ebben, who set out with Jon to scout the Skirling Pass. Dead, all dead but me, and I am dead to the world.  Ygritte rode just behind him. In front was Longspear Ryk. The Lord of Bones had made the two of them his guards. “If the crow flies, I’ll boil your bones as well,” he warned them when they had set out, smiling through the crooked teeth of the giant’s skull he wore for a helm.  Ygritte hooted at him. “You want to guard him? If you want us to do it, leave us be and we’ll do it.”  These are a free folk indeed, Jon saw. Rattleshirt might lead them, but none of them were shy in talking back to him.  The wildling leader fixed him with an unfriendly stare. “Might be you fooled these others, crow, but don’t think you’ll be fooling Mance. He’ll take one look a’ you and know you’re false. And when he does, I’ll make a cloak o’your wolf there, and open your soft boy’s belly and sew a weasel up inside.”  Jon’s sword hand opened and closed, flexing the burned fingers beneath the glove, but Longspear Ryk only laughed. “And where would you find a weasel in the snow?”  That first night, after a long day ahorse, they made camp in a shallow stone bowl atop a nameless mountain, huddling close to the fire while the snow began to fall. Jon watched the flakes melt as they drifted over the flames. Despite his layers of wool and fur and leather, he’d felt cold to the bone. Ygritte sat beside him after she had eaten, her hood pulled up and her hands tucked into her sleeves for warmth. “When Mance hears how you did for Halfhand, he’ll take you quick enough,” she told him.  “Take me for what?”  The girl laughed scornfully. “For one o’ us. D’ya think you’re the first crow ever flew down off the Wall? In your hearts you all want to fly free.”  “And when I’m free,” he said slowly, “will I be free to go?”  “Sure you will.” She had a warm smile, despite her crooked teeth. “And we’ll be free to kill you. It’s dangerous being free, but most come to like the taste o’ it.” She put her gloved hand on his leg, just above the knee. “You’ll see.”  I will, thought Jon. I will see, and hear, and learn, and when I have I will carry the word back to the Wall. The wildlings had taken him for an oathbreaker, but in his heart he was still a man of the Night’s Watch, doing the last duty that Qhorin Halfhand had laid on him. Before I killed him. At the bottom of the slope they came upon a little stream flowing down from the foothills to join the Milkwater. It looked all stones and glass, though they could hear the sound of water running beneath the frozen surface. Rattleshirt led them across, shattering the thin crust of ice.  Mance Rayder’s outriders closed in as they emerged. Jon took their measure with a glance: eight riders, men and women both, clad in fur and boiled leather, with here and there a helm or bit of mail. They were armed with spears and fire-hardened lances, all but their leader, a fleshy blond man with watery eyes who bore a great curved scythe of sharpened steel. The Weeper, he knew at once. The black brothers told tales of this one. Like Rattleshirt and Harma Dogshead and Alfyn Crowkiller, he was a known raider.  “The Lord o’ Bones,” the Weeper said when he saw them. He eyed Jon and his wolf. “Who’s this, then?”  “A crow come over,” said Rattleshirt, who preferred to be called the Lord of Bones, for the clattering armor he wore. “He was afraid I’d take his bones as well as Halfhand’s.” He shook his sack of trophies at the other wildlings.  “He slew Qhorin Halfhand,” said Longspear Ryk. “Him and that wolf o’ his.”  “And did for Orell too,” said Rattleshirt.  “The lad’s a warg, or close enough,” put in Ragwyle, the big spearwife. “His wolf took a piece o’ Halfhand’s leg.”  The Weeper’s red rheumy eyes gave Jon another look. “Aye? Well, he has a wolfish cast to him, now as I look close. Bring him to Mance, might be he’ll keep him.” He wheeled his horse around and galloped off, his riders hard behind him.  The wind was blowing wet and heavy as they crossed the valley of the Milkwater and rode singlefile through the river camp. Ghost kept close to Jon, but the scent of him went before them like a herald, and soon there were wildling dogs all around them, growling and barking. Lenyl screamed at them to be quiet, but they paid him no heed. “They don’t much care for that beast o’ yours,” Longspear Ryk said to Jon.  “They’re dogs and he’s a wolf,” said Jon. “They know he’s not their kind.” No more than I am yours. But he had his duty to be mindful of, the task Qhorin Halfhand had laid upon him as they shared that final fire - to play the part of turncloak, and find whatever it was that the wildlings had been seeking in the bleak cold wilderness of the Frostfangs.  “Some power,” Qhorin had named it to the Old Bear, but he had died before learning what it was, or whether Mance Rayder had found it with his digging.  There were cookfires all along the river, amongst wayns and carts and sleds. Many of the wildlings had thrown up tents, of hide and skin and felted wool. Others sheltered behind rocks in crude lean-tos, or slept beneath their wagons. At one fire Jon saw a man hardening the points of long wooden spears and tossing them in a pile. Elsewhere two bearded youths in boiled leather were sparring with staffs, leaping at each other over the flames, grunting each time one landed a blow. A dozen women sat nearby in a circle, fletching arrows.  Arrows for my brothers, Jon thought. Arrows for my father’s folk, for the people of Winterfell and Deepwood Motte and the Last Hearth. Arrows for the north.  But not all he saw was warlike. He saw women dancing as well, and heard a baby crying, and a little boy ran in front of his garron, all bundled up in fur and breathless from play. Sheep and goats wandered freely, while oxen plodded along the riverbank in search of grass. The smell of roast mutton drifted from one cookfire, and at another he saw a boar turning on a wooden spit.  In an open space surrounded by tall green soldier pines, Rattleshirt dismounted. “We’ll make camp here,” he told Lenyl and Ragwyle and the others. “Feed the horses, then the dogs, then yourself. Ygritte, Longspear, bring the crow so Mance can have his look. We’ll gut him after.”  They walked the rest of the way, past more cookfires and more tents, with Ghost following at their heels. Jon had never seen so many wildlings. He wondered if anyone ever had. The camp goes on forever, he reflected, but it’s more a hundred camps than one, and each more vulnerable than the last. Stretched out over long leagues, the wildlings had no defenses to speak of, no pits nor sharpened stakes, only small groups of outriders patrolling their perimeters. Each group or clan or village had simply stopped where they wanted, as soon as they saw others stopping or found a likely spot. The free folk. If his brothers were to catch them in such disarray, many of them would pay for that freedom with their life’s blood. They had numbers, but the Night’s Watch had discipline, and in battle discipline beats numbers nine times of every ten, his father had once told him.  There was no doubting which tent was the king’s. It was thrice the size of the next largest he’d seen, and he could hear music drifting from within. Like many of the lesser tents it was made of sewn hides with the fur still on, but Mance Rayder’s hides were the shaggy white pelts of snow bears. The peaked roof was crowned with a huge set of antlers from one of the giant elks that had once roamed freely throughout the Seven Kingdoms, in the times of the First Men.  Here at least they found defenders; two guards at the flap of the tent, leaning on tall spears with round leather shields strapped to their arms. When they caught sight of Ghost, one of them lowered his spearpoint and said, “That beast stays here.”  “Ghost, stay,” Jon commanded. The direwolf sat.  “Longspear, watch the beast.” Rattleshirt yanked open the tent and gestured Jon and Ygritte inside.  The tent was hot and smoky. Baskets of burning peat stood in all four comers, filling the air with a dim reddish light. More skins carpeted the ground. Jon felt utterly alone as he stood there in his blacks, awaiting the pleasure of the turncloak who called himself King-beyond-the-Wall. When his eyes had adjusted to the smoky red gloom, he saw six people, none of whom paid him any mind. A dark young man and a pretty blonde woman were sharing a horn of mead. A pregnant woman stood over a brazier cooking a brace of hens, while a grey-haired man in a tattered cloak of black and red sat cross-legged on a pillow, playing a lute and singing:  The Dornishman’s wife was as fair as the sun, and her kisses were warmer than spring.  But the Dornishman’s blade was made of black steel, and its kiss was a terrible thing.  Jon knew the song, though it was strange to hear it here, in a shaggy hide tent beyond the Wall, ten thousand leagues from the red mountains and warm winds of Dorne.  Rattleshirt took off his yellowed helm as he waited for the song to end. Beneath his bone-and-leather armor he was a small man, and the face under the giant’s skull was ordinary, with a knobby chin, thin mustache, and sallow, pinched cheeks. His eyes were close-set, one eyebrow creeping all the way across his forehead, dark hair thinning back from a sharp widow’s peak.  The Dornishman’s wife would sing as she bathed, in a voice that was sweet as a peach,  But the Dornishman’s blade had a song of its own, and a bite sharp and cold as a leech.  Beside the brazier, a short but immensely broad man sat on a stool, eating a hen off a skewer. Hot grease was running down his chin and into his snow-white beard, but he smiled happily all the same. Thick gold bands graven with runes bound his massive arms, and he wore a heavy shirt of black ringmail that could only have come from a dead ranger. A few feet away, a taller, leaner man in a leather shirt sewn with bronze scales stood frowning over a map, a two-handed greatsword slung across his back in a leather sheath. He was straight as a spear, all long wiry muscle, clean-shaved, bald, with a strong straight nose and deepset grey eyes. He might even have been comely if he’d had ears, but he had lost both along the way, whether to frostbite or some enemy’s knife Jon could not tell. Their lack made the man’s head seem narrow and pointed. Both the white-bearded man and the bald one were warriors, that was plain to Jon at a glance. These two are more dangerous than Rattleshirt by far. He wondered which was Mance Rayder.  As he lay on the ground with the darkness around, and the taste of his blood on his tongue, His brothers knelt by him and prayed him a prayer, and he smiled and he laughed and he sung,  “Brothers, oh brothers, my days here are done, the Dornishman’s taken my life,  But what does it matter, for all men must die, and I’ve tasted the Dornishman’s wife!”  As the last strains of “The Dornishman’s Wife” faded, the bald earless man glanced up from his map and scowled ferociously at Rattleshirt and Ygritte, with Jon between them. “What’s this?” he said. “A crow?”  “The black bastard what gutted Orell,” said Rattleshirt, “and a bloody warg as well.”  “You were to kill them all.”  “This one come over,” explained Ygritte. “He slew Qhorin Halfhand with his own hand.”  “This boy?” The earless man was angered by the news. “The Halfhand should have been mine. Do you have a name, crow?”  “Jon Snow, Your Grace.” He wondered whether he was expected to bend the knee as well.  “Your Grace?” The earless man looked at the big white-bearded one. “You see. He takes me for a king.”  The bearded man laughed so hard he sprayed bits of chicken everywhere. He rubbed the grease from his mouth with the back of a huge hand. “A blind boy, must be. Who ever heard of a king without ears? Why, his crown would fall straight down to his neck! Har!” He grinned at Jon, wiping his fingers clean on his breeches. “Close your beak, crow. Spin yourself around, might be you’d find who you’re looking for.”  Jon turned.  The singer rose to his feet. “I’m Mance Rayder,” he said as he put aside the lute. “And you are Ned Stark’s bastard, the Snow of Winterfell.”  Stunned, ............
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