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Sobbing, Sam took another step. This is the last one, the very last, I can’t go on, I can’t. But his feet moved again. One and then the other. They took a step, and then another, and he thought, They’re not my feet, they’re someone else’s, someone else is walking, it can’t be me.  When he looked down he could see them stumbling through the snow; shapeless things, and clumsy. His boots had been black, he seemed to remember, but the snow had caked around them, and now they were misshapen white balls. Like two clubfeet made of ice.  It would not stop, the snow. The drifts were up past his knees, and a crust covered his lower legs like a pair of white greaves. His steps were dragging, lurching. The heavy pack he carried made him look like some monstrous hunchback. And he was tired, so tired. I can’t go on. Mother have mercy, I can’t.  Every fourth or fifth step he had to reach down and tug up his swordbelt. He had lost the sword on the Fist, but the scabbard still weighed down the belt. He did have two knives; the dragonglass dagger Jon had given him and the steel one he cut his meat with. All that weight dragged heavy, and his belly was so big and round that if he forgot to tug the belt slipped right off and tangled round his ankles, no matter how tight he cinched it. He had tried belting it above his belly once, but then it came almost to his armpits. Grenn had laughed himself sick at the sight of it, and Dolorous Edd had said, “I knew a man once who wore his sword on a chain around his neck like that. One day he stumbled, and the hilt went up his nose.”  Sam was stumbling himself. There were rocks beneath the snow, and the roots of trees, and sometimes deep holes in the frozen ground. Black Bernarr had stepped in one and broken his ankle three days past, or maybe four, or... he did not know how long it had been, truly. The Lord Commander had put Bernarr on a horse after that.  Sobbing, Sam took another step. It felt more like he was falling down than walking, falling endlessly but never hitting the ground, just falling forward and forward. I have to stop, it hurts too much. I’m so cold and tired, I need to sleep, just a little sleep beside a fire, and a bite to eat that isn’t frozen.  But if he stopped he died. He knew that. They all knew that, the few who were left. They had been fifty when they fled the Fist, maybe more, but some had wandered off in the snow, a few wounded had bled to death... and sometimes Sam heard shouts behind him, from the rear guard, and once an awful scream. When he heard that he had run, twenty yards or thirty, as fast and as far as he could, his half-frozen feet kicking up the snow, He would be running still if his legs were stronger. They are behind us, they are still behind us, they are taking us one by one.  Sobbing, Sam took another step. He had been cold so long he was forgetting what it was like to feel warm. He wore three pairs of hose, two layers of smallclothes beneath a double lambswool tunic, and over that a thick quilted coat that padded him against the cold steel of his chainmail. Over the hauberk he had a loose surcoat, over that a triplethick cloak with a bone button that fastened tight under his chins. Its hood flopped forward over his forehead. Heavy fur mitts covered his hands over thin wool-and-leather gloves, a scarf was wrapped snugly about the lower half of his face, and he had a tight-fitting fleece-lined cap to pull down over his ears beneath the hood. And still the cold was in him. His feet especially. He couldn’t even feel them now, but only yesterday they had hurt so bad he could hardly bear to stand on them, let alone walk. Every step made him want to scream. Was that yesterday? He could not remember. He had not slept since the Fist, not once since the horn had blown. Unless it was while he was walking. Could a man walk while he was sleeping? Sam did not know, or else he had forgotten.  Sobbing, he took another step. The snow swirled down around him. Sometimes it fell from a white sky, and sometimes from a black, but that was all that remained of day and night. He wore it on his shoulders like a second cloak, and it piled up high atop the pack he carried and made it even heavier and harder to bear. The small of his back hurt aborninably, as if someone had shoved a knife in there and was wiggling it back and forth with every step. His shoulders were in agony from the weight of the mail. He would have given most anything to take it off, but he was afraid to. Anyway he would have needed to remove his cloak and surcoat to get at it, and then the cold would have him.  If only I was stronger... He wasn’t, though, and it was no good wishing. Sam was weak, and fat, so very fat, he could hardly bear his own weight, the mail was much too much for him. It felt as though it was rubbing his shoulders raw, despite the layers of cloth and quilt between the steel and skin. The only thing he could do was cry, and when he cried the tears froze on his cheeks.  Sobbing, he took another step. The crust was broken where he set his feet, otherwise he did not think he could have moved at all. Off to the left and right, half-seen through the silent trees, torches turned to vague orange haloes in the falling snow. When he turned his head he could see them, slipping silent through the wood, bobbing up and down and back and forth. The Old Bear’s ring of fire, he reminded himself, and woe to him who leaves it. As he walked, it seemed as if he were chasing the torches ahead of him, but they had legs as well, longer and stronger than his, so he could never catch them.  Yesterday he begged for them to let him be one of the torchbearers, even if it meant walking outside of the column with the darkness pressing close. He wanted the fire, dreamed of the fire. If I had the fire, I would not be cold. But someone reminded him that he’d had a torch at the start, but he’d dropped it in the snow and snuffed the fire out. Sam didn’t remember dropping any torch, but he supposed it was true. He was too weak to hold his arm up for long. Was it Edd who reminded him about the torch, or Grenn? He couldn’t remember that either. Fat and weak and useless, even my wits are freezing now He took another step.  He had wrapped his scarf over his nose and mouth, but it was covered with snot now, and so stiff he feared it must be frozen to his face. Even breathing was hard, and the air was so cold it hurt to swallow it. “Mother have mercy,” he muttered in a hushed husky voice beneath the frozen mask. “Mother have mercy, Mother have mercy, Mother have mercy.” With each prayer he took another step, dragging his legs through the snow. “Mother have mercy, Mother have mercy, Mother have mercy.”  His own mother was a thousand leagues south, safe with his sisters and his little brother Dickon in the keep at Horn Hill. She can’t hear me, no more than the Mother Above. The Mother was merciful, all the septons agreed, but the Seven had no power beyond the Wall. This was where the old gods ruled, the nameless gods of the trees and the wolves and the snows. “Mercy,” he whispered then, to whatever might be listening, old gods or new, or demons too, “oh, mercy, mercy me, mercy me.”  Maslyn screamed for mercy. Why had he suddenly remembered that? It was nothing he wanted to remember. The man had stumbled backward, dropping his sword, pleading, yielding, even yanking off his thick black glove and thrusting it up before him as if it were a gauntlet. He was still shrieking for quarter as the wight lifted him in the air by the throat and near ripped the head off him. The dead have no mercy left in them, and the Others... no, I mustn’t think of that, don’t think, don’t remember, just walk, just walk, just walk.  Sobbing, he took another step.  A root beneath the crust caught his toe, and Sam tripped and fell heavily to one knee, so hard he bit his tongue. He could taste the blood in his mouth, warmer than anything he had tasted since the Fist. This is the end, he thought. Now that he had fallen he could not seem to find the strength to rise again. He groped for a tree branch and clutched it tight, trying to pull himself back to his feet, but his stiff legs would not support him. The mail was too heavy, and he was too fat besides, and too weak, and too tired.  “Back on your feet, Piggy,” someone growled as he went past, but Sam paid him no mind. I’ll just lie down in the snow and close my eyes. It wouldn’t be so bad, dying here. He couldn’t possibly be any colder, and after a little while he wouldn’t be able to feel the ache in his lower back or the terrible pain in his shoulders, no more than he could feel his feet. I won’t be the first to die, they can’t say I was. Hundreds had died on the Fist, they had died all around him, and more had died after, he’d seen them. Shivering, Sam released his grip on the tree and eased himself down in the snow. It was cold and wet, he knew, but he could scarcely feel it through all his clothing. He stared upward at the pale white sky as snowflakes drifted down upon his stomach and his chest and his eyelids. The snow will cover me like a thick white blanket. It will be warm under the snow, and if they speak of me they’ll have to say I died a man of the Night’s Watch. I did. I did. I did my duty. No one can say I forswore myself. I’m fat and I’m weak and I’m craven, but I did my duty.  The ravens had been his responsibility. That was why they had brought him along. He hadn’t wanted to go, he’d told them so, he’d told them all what a big coward he was. But Maester Aemon was very old and blind besides, so they had to send Sam to tend to the ravens. The Lord Commander had given him his orders when they made their camp on the Fist. “You’re no fighter. We both know that, boy. If it happens that we’re attacked, don’t go trying to prove otherwise, you’ll just get in the way. You’re to send a message. And don’t come running to ask what the letter should say. Write it out yourself, and send one bird to Castle Black and another to the Shadow Tower.” The Old Bear pointed a gloved finger right in Sam’s face. “I don’t care if you’re so scared you foul your breeches, and I don’t care if a thousand wildlings are coming over the walls howling for your blood, you get those birds off, or I swear I’ll hunt you through all seven hells and make you damn sorry that you didn’t.” And Mormont’s own raven had bobbed its head up and down and croaked, “Sorry, sorry, sorry.”  Sam was sorry; sorry he hadn’t been braver, or stronger, or good with swords, that he hadn’t been a better son to his father and a better brother to Dickon and the girls. He was sorry to die too, but better men had died on the Fist, good men and true, not squeaking fat boys like him. At least he would not have the Old Bear hunting him through hell, though. I got the birds off. I did that right, at least. He had written out the messages ahead of time, short messages and simple, telling of an attack on the Fist of the First Men, and then he had tucked them away safe in his parchment pouch, hoping he would never need to send them.  When the horns blew Sam had been sleeping. He thought he was dreaming them at first, but when he opened his eyes snow was falling on the camp and the black brothers were all grabbing bows and spears and running toward the ringwall. Chett was the only one nearby, Maester Aemon’s old steward with the face full of boils and the big wen on his neck. Sam had never seen so much fear on a man’s face as he saw on Chett’s when that third blast came moaning through the trees. “Help me get the birds off,” he pleaded, but the other steward had turned and run off, dagger in hand. He has the dogs to care for, Sam remembered. Probably the Lord Commander had given him some orders as well.  His fingers had been so stiff and clumsy in the gloves, and he was shaking from fear and cold, but he found the parchment pouch and dug out the messages he’d written. The ravens were shrieking furiously, and when he opened the Castle Black cage one of them flew right in his face. Two more escaped before Sam could catch one, and when he did it pecked him through his glove, drawing blood. Yet somehow he held on long enough to attach the little roll of parchment. The warhorn had fallen silent by then, but the Fist rang with shouted commands and the clatter of steel. “Fly!” Sam called as he tossed the raven into the air.  The birds in the Shadow Tower cage were screaming and fluttering about so madly that he was afraid to open the door, but he made himself do it anyway. This time he caught the first raven that tried to escape. A moment later, it was clawing its way up through the falling snow, bearing word of the attack.  His duty done, he finished dressing with clumsy, frightened fingers, donning his cap and surcoat and hooded cloak and buckling on his swordbelt, buckling it real tight so it wouldn’t fall down. Then he found his pack and stuffed all his things inside, spare smallclothes and dry socks, the dragonglass arrowheads and spearhead Jon had given him and the old horn too, his parchments, inks, and quills, the maps he’d been drawing, and a rock-hard garlic sausage he’d been saving since the Wall. He tied it all up and shouldered the pack onto his back. The Lord Commander said I wasn’t to rush to the ringwall, he recalled, but he said I shouldn’t come running to him either. Sam took a deep breath and realized that he did not know what to do next. He remembered turning in a circle, lost, the fear growing inside him as it always did. There were dogs barking and horses trumpeting, but the snow muffled the sounds and made them seem far away. Sam could see nothing beyond three yards, not even the torches burning along the low stone wall that ringed the crown of the hill. Could the torches have gone out? That was too scary to think about. The horn blew thrice long, three long blasts means Others. The white walkers of the wood, the cold shadows, the monsters of the tales that made him squeak and tremble as a boy, riding their giant ice-spiders, hungry for blood...  Awkwardly he drew his sword, and plodded heavily through the snow holding it. A dog ran past barking, and he saw some of the men from the Shadow Tower, big bearded men with longaxes and eight-foot spears. He felt safer for their company, so he followed them to the wall. When he saw the torches still burning atop the ring of stones a shudder of relief went through him.  The black brothers stood with swords and spears in hand, watching the snow fall, waiting. Ser Mallador Locke went by on his horse, wearing a snow-speckled helm. Sam stood well back behind the others, looking for Grenn or Dolorous Edd. If I have to die, let me die beside my friends, he remembered thinking. But all the men around him were strangers, Shadow Tower men under the command of the ranger named Blane.  “Here they come,” he heard a brother say.  “Notch,” said Blane, and twenty black arrows were pulled from as many quivers, and notched to as many bowstrings.  “Gods be good, there’s hundreds,” a voice said softly.  “Draw,” Blane said, and then, “hold.” Sam could not see and did not want to see. The men of the Night’s Watch stood behind their torches, waiting with arrows pulled back to their ears, as something came up that dark, slippery slope through the snow. “Hold,” Blane said again, “hold, hold.” And then, “Loose.”  The arrows whispered as they flew.  A ragged cheer went up from the men along the ringwall, but it died quickly. “They’re not stopping, m’lord,” a man said to Blane, and another shouted, “More! Look there, coming from the trees,” and yet another said, “Gods ha’ mercy, they’s crawling. They’s almost here, they’s on us!” Sam had been backing away by then, shaking like the last leaf on the tree when the wind kicks up, as much from cold as from fear. It had been very cold that night. Even colder than now The snow feels almost warm. I feel better now. A little rest was all I needed. Maybe in a little while I’ll be strong enough to walk again. In a little while.  A horse stepped past his head, a shaggy grey beast with snow in its mane and hooves crusted with ice. Sam watched it come and watched it go. Another appeared from out of the falling snow, with a man in black leading it. When he saw Sam in his path he cursed him and led the horse around. I wish I had a horse, he thought. If I had a horse I could keep going. I could sit, and even sleep some in the saddle. Most of their mounts had been lost at the Fist, though, and those that remained carried their food, their torches, and their wounded. Sam wasn’t wounded. Only fat and weak, and the greatest craven in the Seven Kingdoms.  He was such a coward. Lord Randyll, his father, had always said so, and he had been right. Sam was his heir, but he had never been worthy, so his father had sent him away to the Wall. His little brother Dickon would inherit the Tarly lands and castle, and the greatsword Heartsbane that the lords of Horn Hill had borne so proudly for centuries. He wondered whether Dickon would shed a tear for his brother who died in the snow, somewhere off beyond the edge of the world. Why should he? A coward’s not worth weeping over. He had heard his father tell his mother as much, half a hundred times. The Old Bear knew it too.  “Fire arrows,” the Lord Commander roared that night on the Fist, when he appeared suddenly astride his horse, “give them flame.” It was then he noticed Sam there quaking. “Tarly! Get out of here! Your place is with the ravens.”  “I... I... I got the messages away.”  “Good.” On Mormont’s shoulder his own raven echoed, “Good, good.”  The Lord Commander looked huge in fur and mail. Behind his black iron visor, his eyes were fierce. “You’re in the way here. Go back to your cages. If I need to send another message, I don’t want to have to find you first. See that the birds are ready.” He did not wait for a response, but turned his horse and trotted around the ring, shouting, “Fire! Give them fire!”  Sam did not need to be told twice. He went back to the birds, as fast as his fat legs could carry him. I should write the message ahead of time, he thought, so we can get the birds away as fast as need be. It took him longer than it should have to light his little fire, to warm the frozen ink. He sat beside it on a rock with quill and parchment, and wrote his messages.  Attacked amidst snow and cold, but we’ve thrown them back with fire arrows, he wrote, as he heard Thoren Smallwood’s voice ring out with a command of, “Notch, draw... loose.” The flight of arrows made a sound as sweet as a mother’s prayer. “Burn, you dead bastards, burn,” Dywen sang out, cackling. The brothers cheered and cursed. All safe, he wrote. We remain on the Fist of the First Men. Sam hoped they were better archers than him.  He put that note aside and found another blank parchment. Still fighting on the Fist, amidst heavy snow, he wrote when someone shouted, “They’re still coming.” Result uncertain. “Spears,” someone said. It might have been Ser Mallador, but Sam could not swear to it. Wights attacked us on the Fist, in snow, he wrote, but we drove them off with fire. He turned his head. Through the drifting snow, all he could see was the huge fire at the center of the camp, with mounted men moving restlessly around it. The reserve, he knew, ready to ride down anything that breached the ringwall. They had armed themselves with torches in place of swords, and were lighting them in the flames.  Wights all aroun............
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