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SAMWELL
Up in the loft a woman was giving birth noisily, while below a man lay dying by the fire. Samwell Tarly could not say which frightened him more.  They’d covered poor Barmen with a pile of furs and stoked the fire high, yet all he could say was, “I’m cold. Please. I’m so cold.” Sam was trying to feed him onion broth, but he could not swallow. The broth dribbled over his lips and down his chin as fast as Sam could spoon it in.  “That one’s dead.” Craster eyed the man with indifference as he worried at a sausage. “Be kinder to stick a knife in his chest than that spoon down his throat, you ask me.”  “I don’t recall as we did.” Giant was no more than five feet tall - his true name was Bedwyck - but a fierce little man for all that. “Slayer, did you ask Craster for his counsel?”  Sam cringed at the name, but shook his head. He filled another spoon, brought it to Barmen’s mouth, and tried to ease it between his lips.  “Food and fire,” Giant was saying, “that was all we asked of you. And you grudge us the food.”  “Be glad I didn’t grudge you fire too.” Craster was a thick man made thicker by the ragged smelly sheepskins he wore day and night. He had a broad flat nose, a mouth that drooped to one side, and a missing ear. And though his matted hair and tangled beard might be grey going white, his hard knuckly hands still looked strong enough to hurt. “I fed you what I could, but you crows are always hungry. I’m a godly man, else I would have chased you off. You think I need the likes of him, dying on my floor? You think I need all your mouths, little man?” The wildling spat. “Crows. When did a black bird ever bring good to a man’s hall, I ask you? Never. Never.”  More broth ran from the comer of Barmen’s mouth. Sam dabbed it away with a corner of his sleeve. The ranger’s eyes were open but unseeing. “I’m cold,” he said again, so faintly. A maester might have known how to save him, but they had no maester. Kedge Whiteye had taken Barmen’s mangled foot off nine days past, in a gout of pus and blood that made Sam sick, but it was too little, too late. “I’m so cold,” the pale lips repeated.  About the hall, a ragged score of black brothers squatted on the floor or sat on rough-hewn benches, drinking cups of the same thin onion broth and gnawing on chunks of hardbread. A couple were wounded worse than Bannen, to look at them. Fornio had been delirious for days, and Ser Byam’s shoulder was oozing a foul yellow pus. When they’d left Castle Black, Brown Bernarr had been carrying bags of Myrish fire, mustard salve, ground garlic, tansy, poppy, kingscopper, and other healing herbs. Even sweetsleep, which gave the gift of painless death. But Brown Bernarr had died on the Fist and no one had thought to search for Maester Aemon’s medicines. Hake had known some herblore as well, being a cook, but Hake was also lost. So it was left to the surviving stewards to do what they could for the wounded, which was little enough. At least they are dry here, with a fire to warm them. They need more food, though.  They all needed more food. The men had been grumbling for days. Clubfoot Karl kept saying how Craster had to have a hidden larder, and Garth of Oldtown had begun to echo him, when he was out of the Lord Commander’s hearing. Sam had thought of begging for something more nourishing for the wounded men at least, but he did not have the courage. Craster’s eyes were cold and mean, and whenever the wildling looked his way his hands twitched a little, as if they wanted to curl up into fists. Does he know I spoke to Gilly, the last time we were here? he wondered. Did she tell him I said we’d take her? Did he beat it out of her?  “I’m cold,” said Barmen. “Please. I’m cold.,,  For all the heat and smoke in Craster’s hall, Sam felt cold himself. And tired, so tired. He needed sleep, but whenever he closed his eyes he dreamed of blowing snow and dead men shambling toward him with black hands and bright blue eyes.  Up in the loft, Gilly let out a shuddering sob that echoed down the long low windowless hall. “Push,” he heard one of Craster’s older wives tell her. “Harder. Harder. Scream if it helps.” She did, so loud it made Sam wince.  Craster turned his head to glare. “I’ve had a bellyful o’ that shrieking,” he shouted up. “Give her a rag to bite down on, or I’ll come up there and give her a taste o’ my hand.”  He would too, Sam knew. Craster had nineteen wives, but none who’d dare interfere once he started up that ladder. No more than the black brothers had two nights past, when he was beating one of the younger girls. There had been mutterings, to be sure. “He’s killing her” Garth of Greenaway had said, and Clubfoot Karl laughed and said, “If he don’t want the little sweetmeat he could give her to me.” Black Bernarr cursed in a low angry voice, and Alan of Rosby got up and went outside so he wouldn’t have to hear. “His roof, his rule,” the ranger Ronnel Harclay had reminded them. “Craster’s a friend to the Watch.”  A friend, thought Sam, as he listened to Gilly’s muffled shrieks. Craster was a brutal man who ruled his wives and daughters with an iron hand, but his keep was a refuge all the same. “Frozen crows,” Craster sneered when they straggled in, those few who had survived the snow, the wights, and the bitter cold. “And not so big a flock as went north, neither.” Yet he had given them space on his floor, a roof to keep the snow off, a fire to dry them out, and his wives had brought them cups of hot wine to put some warmth in their bellies. “Bloody crows,” he called them, but he’d fed them too, meager though the fare might be.  We are guests, Sam reminded himself. Gilly is his. His daughter, his wife. His roof, his rule.  The first time he’d seen Craster’s Keep, Gilly had come begging for help, and Sam had lent her his black cloak to conceal her belly when she went to find Jon Snow. Knights are supposed to defend women and children. Only a few of the black brothers were knights, but even so... We all say the words, Sam thought. I am the shield that guards the realms of men. A woman was a woman, even a wildling woman. We should help her. We should. It was her child Gilly feared for; she was frightened that it might be a boy. Craster raised up his daughters to be his wives, but there were neither men nor boys to be seen about his compound. Gilly had told Jon that Craster gave his sons to the gods. If the gods are good, they will send her a daughter, Sam prayed.  Up in the loft, Gilly choked back a scream. “That’s it,” a woman said. “Another push, now. Oh, I see his head.”  Hers, Sam thought miserably. Her head, hers.  “Cold,” said Barmen, weakly. “Please. I’m so cold.” Sam put the bowl and spoon aside, tossed another fur across the dying man, put another stick on the fire. Gilly gave a shriek, and began to pant. Craster gnawed on his hard black sausage. He had sausages for himself and his wives, he said, but none for the Watch. “Women,” he complained. “The way they wail... I had me a fat sow once birthed a litter of eight with no more’n a grunt.” Chewing, he turned his head to squint contemptuously at Sam. “She was near as fat as you, boy. Slayer.” He laughed.  It was more than Sam could stand. He stumbled away from the firepit, stepping awkwardly over and around the men sleeping and squatting and dying upon the hard-packed earthen floor. The smoke and screams and moans were making him feel faint. Bending his head, he pushed through the hanging deerhide flaps that served Craster for a door and stepped out into the afternoon.  The day was cloudy, but still bright enough to blind him after the gloom of the hall. Some patches of snow weighed down the limbs of surrounding trees and blanketed the gold and russet hills, but fewer than there had been. The storm had passed on, and the days at Craster’s Keep had been... well, not warm perhaps, but not so bitter cold. Sam could hear the soft drip-drip-drip of water melting off the icicles that bearded the edge of the thick sod roof. He took a deep shuddering breath and looked around.  To the west Ollo Lophand and Tim Stone were moving through the horselines, feeding and watering the remaining garrons.  Downwind, other brothers were skinning and butchering the animals deemed too weak to go on. Spearmen and archers walked sentry behind the earthen dikes that were Craster’s only defense against whatever hid in the wood beyond, while a dozen firepits sent up thick fingers of blue-grey smoke. Sam could hear the distant echoes of axes at work in the forest, where a work detail was harvesting enough wood to keep the blazes burning all through the night. Nights were the bad time. When it got dark. And cold.  There had been no attacks while they had been at Craster’s, neither wights nor Others. Nor would there be, Craster said. “A godly man got no cause to fear such. I said as much to that Mance Rayder once, when he come sniffing round. He never listened, no more’n you crows with your swords and your bloody fires. That won’t help you none when the white cold comes. Only the gods will help you then. You best get right with the gods.”  Gilly had spoken of the white cold as well, and she’d told them what sort of offerings Craster made to his gods. Sam had wanted to kill him when he heard. There are no laws beyond the Wall, he reminded himself, and Craster’s a friend to the Watch.  A ragged shout went up from behind the daub-and-wattle hall. Sam went to take a look. The ground beneath his feet was a slush of melting snow and soft mud that Dolorous Edd insisted was made of Craster’s shit. It was thicker than shit, though; it sucked at Sam’s boots so hard he felt one pull loose.  Back of a vegetable garden and empty sheepfold, a dozen black brothers were loosing arrows at a butt they’d built of hay and straw. The slender blond steward they called Sweet Donnel had laid a shaft just off the bull’s eye at fifty yards. “Best that, old man,” he said.  “Aye. I will.” Ulmer, stooped and grey-bearded and loose of skin and limb, stepped to the mark and pulled an arrow from the quiver at his waist. In his youth he had been an outlaw, a member of the infamous Kingswood Brotherhood. He claimed he’d once put an arrow through the hand of the White Bull of the Kingsguard to steal a kiss from the lips of a Dornish princess. He had stolen her jewels too, and a chest of golden dragons, but it was the kiss he liked to boast of in his cups.  He notched and drew, all smooth as summer silk, then let fly. His shaft struck the butt an inch inside of Donnel Hill’s. “Will that do, lad?” he asked, stepping back.  “Well enough,” said the younger man, grudgingly. “The crosswind helped you. It blew more strongly when I loosed.”  “You ought to have allowed for it, then. You have a good eye and a steady hand, but you’ll need a deal more to best a man of the kingswood. Fletcher Dick it was who showed me how to bend the bow, and no finer archer ever lived. Have I told you about old Dick, now?”  “Only three hundred times.” Every man at Castle Black had heard Ulmer’s tales of the great outlaw band of yore; of Simon Toyne and the Smiling Knight, Oswyn Longneck the Thrice-Hanged, Wenda the White Fawn, Fletcher Dick, Big Belly Ben, and all the rest. Searching for escape, Sweet Donnel looked about and spied Sam standing in the muck. “Slayer,” he called. “Come, show us how you slew the Other.” He held out the tall yew longbow.  Sam turned red. “It wasn’t an arrow, it was a dagger, dragonglass...  He knew what would happen if he took the bow. He would miss the butt and send the arrow sailing over the dike off into the trees. Then he’d hear the laughter.  “No matter,” said Alan of Rosby, another fine bowman. “We’re all keen to see the Slayer shoot. Aren’t we, lads?”  He could not face them; the mocking smiles, the mean little jests, the contempt in their eyes. Sam turned to go back the way he’d come, but his right foot sank deep in the muck, and when he tried to pull it out his boot came off. He had to kneel to wrench it free, laughter ringing in his ears. Despite all his socks, the snowmelt had soaked through to his toes by the time he made his escape. Useless, he thought miserably. My father saw me true. I have no right to be alive when so many brave men are dead.  Grenn was tending the firepit south of the compound gate, stripped to the waist as he split logs. His face was red with exertion, the sweat steaming off his skin. But he grinned as Sam came chuffing up. “The Others get your boot, Slayer?”  Him too? “It was the mud. Please don’t call me that.”  “Why not?” Grenn sounded honestly puzzled. “It’s a good name, and you came by it fairly.”  Pyp always teased Grenn about being thick as a castle wall, so Sam explained patiently. “It’s just a different way of calling me a coward,” he said, standing on his left leg and wriggling back into his muddy boot. “They’re mocking me, the same way they mock Bedwyck by calling him ‘Giant.”  “He’s not a giant, though,” said Grenn, “and Paul was never small. Well, maybe when he was a babe at the breast, but not after. You did slay the Other, though, so it’s not the same.”  “I just... I never... I was seared!”  “No more than me. It’s only Pyp who says I’m too dumb to be frightened. I get as frightened as anyone.” Grenn bent to scoop up a split log, and tossed it into the fire. “I used to be scared of Jon, whenever I had to fight him. He was so quick, and he fought like he meant to kill me.” The green damp wood sat in the flames, smoking before it took fire. “I never said, though. Sometimes I think everyone is just pretending to be brave, and none of us really are. Maybe pretending is how you get brave, I don’t know. Let them call you Slayer, who cares?”  “You never liked Ser Alliser to call you Aurochs.”  “He was saying I was big and stupid.” Grenn scratched at his beard. “If Pyp wanted to call me Aurochs, though, he could. Or you, or Jon. An aurochs is a fierce strong beast, so that’s not so bad, and I am big, and getting bigger. Wouldn’t you rather be Sam the Slayer than Ser Piggy?”  “Why can’t I just be Samwell Tarly?” He sat down heavily on a wet log that Grenn had yet to split. “It was the dragonglass that slew it. Not me, the dragonglass.”  He had told them. He had told them all. Some of them didn’t believe him, he knew. Dirk had shown Sam his dirk and said, “I got iron, what do I want with glass?” Black Bernarr and the three Garths made it plain that they doubted his whole story, and Rolley of Sisterton came right out and said, “More like you stabbed some rustling bushes and it turned out to be Small Paul taking a shit, so you came up with a lie.”  But Dywen listened, and Dolorous Edd, and they made Sam and Grenn tell the Lord Commander. Mormont frowned all through the tale and asked pointed questions, but he was too cautious a man to shun any possible advantage. He asked Sam for all the dragonglass in his pack, though that was little enough. Whenever Sam thought of the cache Jon had found buried beneath the Fist, it made him want to cry. There’d been dagger blades and spearheads, and two or three hundred arrowheads at least. Jon had made daggers for himself, Sam, and Lord Commander Mormont, and he’d given Sam a spearhead, an old broken horn, and some arrowheads. Grenn had taken a handful of arrowheads as well, but that was all.  So now all they had was Mormont’s dagger and the one Sam had given Grenn, plus nineteen arrows and a tall hardwood spear with a black dragonglass head. The sentries passed the spear along from watch to watch, while Mormont had divided the arrows among his best bowmen. Muttering Bill, Garth Greyfeather, Ronnel Harclay, Sweet Donnel Hill, and Alan of Rosby had three a piece, and Ulmer had four. But even if they made every shaft tell, they’d soon be down to fire arrows like all the rest. They had loosed hundreds of fire arrows on the Fist, yet still the wights kept coming.  It will not be enough, Sam thought. Craster’s sloping palisades of mud and melting snow would hardly slow the wights, who’d climbed the much steeper slopes of the Fist to swarm over the ringwall. And instead of three hundred brothers drawn up in disciplined ranks to meet them, the wights would find forty-one ragged survivors, nine too badly hurt to fight. Forty-four had come straggling into Craster’s out of the storm, out of the sixty-odd who’d cut their way free of the Fist, but three of those had died of their wounds, and Bannen would soon make four.  “Do you think the wights are gone?” Sam asked Grenn. “Why don’t they come finish us?”  “They only come when it’s cold.”  “Yes,” said Sam, “but is it the cold that brings the wights, or the wights that bring the cold?”  “Who cares?” Grenn’s axe sent wood chips flying. “They come together, that’s what matters. Hey, now that we know that dragonglass kills them, maybe they won’t come at all. Maybe they’re frightened of us now!”  Sam wished he could believe that, but it seemed to him that when you were dead, fear had no more meaning than pain or love or duty. He wrapped his hands around his legs, sweating under his layers of wool and leather and fur. The dragonglass dagger had melted the pale thing in the woods, true... but Grenn was talking like it would do the same to the wights. We don’t know that, he thought. We don’t know anything, really. I wish Jon was here. He liked Grenn, but he couldn’t talk to him the same way. Jon wouldn’t call me Slayer, I know And I could talk to him about Gilly’s baby. Jon had ridden off with Qhorin Halfhand, though, and they’d had no word of him since. He had a dragonglass dagger too, but did he think to use it? Is he lying dead and frozen in some ravine... or worse, is he dead and walking?  He could not understand why the gods would want to take Jon Snow and Barmen and leave him, craven and clumsy as he was. He should have died on the Fist, where he’d pissed himself three times and lost his sword besides. And he would have died in the woods if Small Paul had not come along to carry him. I wish it was all a dream. Then I could wake up. How fine that would be, to wake back on the Fist of the First Men with all his brothers still around him, even Jon and Ghost. Or even better, to wake in Castle Black behind the Wall and go to the common room for a bowl of Three-Finger Hobb’s thick cream of wheat, with a big spoon of butter melting in the middle and a dollop of honey besides. just the thought of it made his empty stomach rumble.  “Snow.”  Sam glanced up at the sound. Lord Commander Mormont’s raven was circling the fire, beating the air with wide black wings.  “Snow,” the bird cawed. “Snow, snow”  Wherever the raven went, Mormont soon followed. The Lord Commander emerged from beneath the trees, mounted on his garron between old Dywen and the fox-faced ranger Ronnel Harclay, who’d been raised to Thoren Smallwood’s place. The spearmen at the gate shouted a challenge, and the Old Bear returned a gruff, “Who in seven hells do you think goes there? Did the Others take your eyes?” He rode between the gateposts, one bearing a ram’s skull and the other the skull of a bear, then reined up, raised a fist, and whistled. The raven came flapping down at his call.  “My lord,” Sam heard Ronnel Harclay say, “we have only twenty-two mounts, and I doubt half will reach the Wall.”  “I know that,” Mormont grumbled. “We must go all the same. Craster’s made that plain.” He glanced to the west, where a bank of dark clouds hid the sun. “The gods gave us a respite, but for how long?” Mormont swung down from the saddle, jolting his raven back into the air. He saw Sam then, and bellowed, “Tarly!”  “Me?” Sam got awkwardly to his feet.  “Me?” The raven landed on the old man’s head. “Me?”  “Is your name Tarly? Do you have a brother hereabouts? Yes, you. Close your mouth and come with me.”  “With you?” The words tumbled out in a squeak.  Lord Commander Mormont gave him a withering look. “You are a man of the Night’s Watch. Try not to soil your smallclothes every time I look at you. Come, I said.” His boots made squishing sounds in the mud, and Sam had to hurry to keep up. “I’ve been thinking about this dragonglass of yours.”  “It’s not mine,” Sam said.  “Jon Snow’s dragonglass, then. If dragonglass daggers are what we............
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