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JON
The last night fell black and moonless, but for once the sky was clear. “I am going up the hill to look for Ghost,” he told the Therns at the cave mouth, and they grunted and let him pass. So many stars, he thought as he trudged up the slope through pines and firs and ash. Maester Luwin had taught him his stars as a boy in Winterfell; he had learned the names of the twelve houses of heaven and the rulers of each; he could find the seven wanderers sacred to the Faith; he was old friends with the Ice Dragon, the Shadowcat, the Moonmaid, and the Sword of the Morning. All those he shared with Ygritte, but not some of the others. We look up at the same stars, and see such different things. The King’s Crown was the Cradle, to hear her tell it; the Stallion was the Horned Lord; the red wanderer that septons preached was sacred to their Smith up here was called the Thief. And when the Thief was in the Moonmaid, that was a propitious time for a man to steal a woman, Ygritte insisted. “Like the night you stole me. The Thief was bright that night.”  “I never meant to steal you,” he said. “I never knew you were a girl until my knife was at your throat.”  “If you kill a man, and never meant’, he’s just as dead,” Ygritte said stubbornly. Jon had never met anyone so stubborn, except maybe for his little sister Arya. Is she still my sister? he wondered. Was she ever? He had never truly been a Stark, only Lord Eddard’s motherless bastard, with no more place at Winterfell than Theon Greyjoy. And even that he’d lost. When a man of the Night’s Watch said his words, he put aside his old family and joined a new one, but Jon Snow had lost those brothers too.  He found Ghost atop the hill, as he thought he might. The white wolf never howled, yet something drew him to the heights all the same, and he would squat there on his hindquarters, hot breath rising in a white mist as his red eyes drank the stars.  “Do you have names for them as well?” Jon asked, as he went to one knee beside the direwolf and scratched the thick white fur on his neck, “The Hare? The Doe? The She-Wolf?” Ghost licked his face, his rough wet tongue rasping against the scabs where the eagle’s talons had ripped Jon’s cheek. The bird marked both of us, he thought. “Ghost,” he said quietly, “on the morrow we go over. There’s no steps here, no cage-and-crane, no way for me to get you to the other side. We have to part. Do you understand?”  In the dark, the direwolf’s red eyes looked black. He nuzzled at Jon’s neck, silent as ever, his breath a hot mist. The wildlings called Jon Snow a warg, but if so he was a poor one. He did not know how to put on a wolf skin, the way Orell had with his eagle before he’d died. Once Jon had dreamed that he was Ghost, looking down upon the valley of the Milkwater where Mance Rayder had gathered his people, and that dream had turned out to be true. But he was not dreaming now, and that left him only words.  “You cannot come with me,” Jon said, cupping the wolf’s head in his hands and looking deep into those eyes. “You have to go to Castle Black. Do you understand? Castle Black. Can you find it? The way home? just follow the ice, east and east, into the sun, and you’ll find it. They will know you at Castle Black, and maybe your coming will warn them.” He had thought of writing out a warning for Ghost to carry, but he had no ink, no parchment, not even a writing quill, and the risk of discovery was too great. “I will meet you again at Castle Black, but you have to get there by yourself. We must each hunt alone for a time. Alone.”  The direwolf twisted free of Jon’s grasp, his ears pricked up. And suddenly he was bounding away. He loped through a tangle of brush, leapt a deadfall, and raced down the hillside, a pale streak among the trees. Off to Castle Black? Jon wondered. Or off after a hare? He wished he knew. He feared he might prove just as poor a warg as a sworn brother and a spy.  A wind sighed through the trees, rich with the smell of pine needles, tugging at his faded blacks. Jon could see the Wall looming high and dark to the south, a great shadow blocking out the stars. The rough hilly ground made him think they must be somewhere between the Shadow Tower and Castle Black, and likely closer to the former. For days they had been wending their way south between deep lakes that stretched like long thin fingers along the floors of narrow valleys, while flint ridges and pine-clad hills jostled against one another to either side. Such ground made for slow riding, but offered easy concealment for those wishing to approach the Wall unseen.  For wildling raiders, he thought. Like us. Like me.  Beyond that Wall lay the Seven Kingdoms, and everything he had sworn to protect. He had said the words, had pledged his life and honor, and by rights he should be up there standing sentry. He should be raising a horn to his lips to rouse the Night’s Watch to arms. He had no horn, though. It would not be hard to steal one from the wildlings, he suspected, but what would that accomplish? Even if he blew it, there was no one to hear. The Wall was a hundred leagues long and the Watch sadly dwindled. All but three of the strongholds had been abandoned; there might not be a brother within forty miles of here, but for Jon. If he was a brother still...  I should have tried to kill Mance Rayder on the Fist, even if it meant my life. That was what Qhorin Halfhand would have done. But Jon had hesitated, and the chance passed. The next day he had ridden off with Styr the Magnar, Jarl, and more than a hundred picked Therms and raiders. He told himself that he was only biding his time, that when the moment came he would slip away and ride for Castle Black. The moment never came. They rested most nights in empty wildling villages, and Styr always set a dozen of his Therms to guard the horses. Jarl watched him suspiciously. And Ygritte was never far, day or night.  Two hearts that beat as one. Mance Rayder’s mocking words rang bitter in his head. Jon had seldom felt so confused. I have no choice, he’d told himself the first time, when she slipped beneath his sleeping skins. If I refuse her, she will know me for a turncloak. I am playing the part the Halfhand told me to play.  His body had played the part eagerly enough. His lips on hers, his hand sliding under her doeskin shirt to find a breast, his manhood stiffening when she rubbed her mound against it through their clothes. My vows, he’d thought, remembering the weirwood grove where he had said them, the nine great white trees in a circle, the carved red faces watching, listening. But her fingers were undoing his laces and her tongue was in his mouth and her hand slipped inside his smallclothes and brought him out, and he could not see the weirwoods anymore, only her. She bit his neck and he nuzzled hers, burying his nose in her thick red hair. Lucky, he thought, she is lucky, fire-kissed. “Isn’t that good?” she whispered as she guided him inside her. She was sopping wet down there, and no maiden, that was plain, but Jon did not care. His vows, her maidenhood, none of it mattered, only the heat of her, the mouth on his, the finger that pinched at his nipple. “Isn’t that sweet?” she said again. “Not so fast, oh, slow, yes, like that. There now, there now, yes, sweet, sweet. You know nothing, Jon Snow, but I can show you. Harder now. Yessss.”  A part, he tried to remind himself afterward. I am playing a part. I had to do it once, to prove I’d abandoned my vows. I had to make her trust me. It need never happen again. He was still a man of the Night’s Watch, and a son of Eddard Stark. He had done what needed to be done, proved what needed to be proven.  The proving had been so sweet, though, and Ygritte had gone to sleep beside him with her head against his chest, and that was sweet as well, dangerously sweet. He thought of the weirwoods again, and the words he’d said before them. It was only once, and it had to be. Even my father stumbled once, when he forgot his marriage vows and sired a bastard. Jon vowed to himself that it would be the same with him. It will never happen again.  It happened twice more that night, and again in the morning, when she woke to find him hard. The wildlings were stirring by then, and several could not help but notice what was going on beneath the pile of furs. Jarl told them to be quick about it, before he had to throw a pail of water over them. Like a pair of rutting dogs, Jon thought afterward. Was that what he’d become? I am a man of the Night’s Watch, a small voice inside insisted, but every night it seemed a little fainter, and when Ygritte kissed his ears or bit his neck, he could not hear it at all. Was this how it was for my father? he wondered. Was he as weak as I am, when he dishonored himself in my mother’s bed?  Something was coming up the hill behind him, he realized suddenly. For half a heartbeat he thought it might be Ghost come back, but the direwolf never made so much noise. Jon drew Longclaw in a single smooth motion, but it was only one of the Therns, a broad man in a bronze helm. “Snow,” the intruder said. “Come. Magnar wants.” The men of Therm spoke the Old Tongue, and most had only a few words of the Common.  Jon did not much care what the Magnar wanted, but there was no use arguing with someone who could scarcely understand him, so he followed the man back down the hill.  The mouth of the cave was a cleft in the rock barely wide enough for a horse, half concealed behind a soldier pine. It opened to the north, so the glows of the fires within would not be visible from the Wall. Even if by some mischance a patrol should happen to pass atop the Wall tonight, they would see nothing but hills and pines and the icy sheen of starlight on a half-frozen lake. Mance Rayder had planned his thrust well.  Within the rock, the passage descended twenty feet before it opened out onto a space as large as Winterfell’s Great Hall. Cookfires burned amongst the columns, their smoke rising to blacken the stony ceiling. The horses had been hobbled along one wall, beside a shallow pool. A sinkhole in the center of the floor opened on what might have been an even greater cavern below, though the darkness made it hard to tell. Jon could hear the soft rushing sound of an underground stream somewhere below as well.  Jarl was with the Magnar; Mance had given them the joint command. Styr was none too pleased by that, Jon had noted early on. Mance Rayder had called the dark youth a “pet” of Val, who was sister to Dalla, his own queen, which made Jarl a sort of good brother once removed to the King-beyond-the-Wall. The Magnar plainly resented sharing his authority. He had brought a hundred Therms, five times as many men as Jarl, and often acted as if he had the sole command. But it would be the younger man who got them over the ice, Jon knew. Though he could not have been older than twenty, Jarl had been raiding for eight years, and had gone over the Wall a dozen times with the likes of Alfyn Crowkiller and the Weeper, and more recently with his own band.  The Magnar was direct. “Jarl has warned me of crows, patrolling on high. Tell me all you know of these patrols.”  Tell me, Jon noted, not tell us, though Jarl stood right beside him. He would have liked nothing better than to refuse the brusque demand, but he knew Styr would put him to death at the slightest disloyalty, and Ygritte as well, for the crime of being his. “There are four men in each patrol, two rangers and two builders,” he said. “The builders are supposed to make note of cracks, melting, and other structural problems, while the rangers look for signs of foes. They ride mules.”  “Mules?” The earless man frowned. “Mules are slow.”  “Slow, but more surefooted on the ice. The patrols often ride atop the Wall, and aside from Castle Black, the paths up there have not been graveled for long years. The mules are bred at Eastwatch, and specially trained to their duty.”  “They often ride atop the Wall? Not always?”  “No. One patrol in four follows the base instead, to search for cracks in the foundation ice or signs of tunneling.”  The Magnar nodded. “Even in far Therm we know the tale of Arson Iceaxe and his tunnel.”  Jon knew the tale as well. Arson Iceaxe had been halfway through the Wall when his tunnel was found by rangers from the Nightfort. They did not trouble to disturb him at his digging, only sealed the way behind with ice and stone and snow. Dolorous Edd used to say that if you pressed your ear flat to the Wall, you could still hear Arson chipping away with his axe.  “When do these patrols go out? How often?”  Jon shrugged. “It changes. I’ve heard that Lord C............
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