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BRAN
The tower stood upon an island, its twin reflected on the still blue waters. When the wind blew, ripples moved across the surface of the lake, chasing one another like boys at play. Oak trees grew thick along the lakeshore, a dense stand of them with a litter of fallen acorns on the ground beneath. Beyond them was the village, or what remained of it.  It was the first village they had seen since leaving the foothills. Meera had scouted ahead to make certain there was no one lurking amongst the ruins. Sliding in and amongst oaks and apple trees with her net and spear in hand, she startled three red deer and sent them bounding away through the brush. Summer saw the flash of motion and was after them at once. Bran watched the direwolf lope off, and for a moment wanted nothing so much as to slip his skin and run with him, but Meera was waving for them to come ahead. Reluctantly, he turned away from Summer and urged Hodor on, into the village. Jojen walked with them.  The ground from here to the Wall was grasslands, Bran knew; fallow fields and low rolling hills, high meadows and lowland bogs. It would be much easier going than the mountains behind, but so much open space made Meera uneasy. “I feel naked,” she confessed. “There’s no place to hide.”  “Who holds this land?” Jojen asked Bran.  “The Night’s Watch,” he answered. “This is the Gift. The New Gift, and north of that Brandon’s Gift.” Maester Luwin had taught him the history. “Brandon the Builder gave all the land south of the Wall to the black brothers, to a distance of twenty-five leagues. For their... for their sustenance and support.” He was proud that he still remembered that part. “Some maesters say it was some other Brandon, not the Builder, but it’s still Brandon’s Gift. Thousands of years later, Good Queen Alysanne visited the Wall on her dragon Silverwing, and she thought the Night’s Watch was so brave that she had the Old King double the size of their lands, to fifty leagues. So that was the New Gift.” He waved a hand. “Here. All this.”  No one had lived in the village for long years, Bran could see. All the houses were falling down. Even the inn. It had never been much of an inn, to look at it, but now all that remained was a stone chimney and two cracked walls, set amongst a dozen apple trees. One was growing up through the common room, where a layer of wet brown leaves and rotting apples carpeted the floor. The air was thick with the smell of them, a cloying cidery scent that was almost overwhelming. Meera stabbed a few apples with her frog spear, trying to find some still good enough to eat, but they were all too brown and wormy.  It was a peaceful spot, still and tranquil and lovely to behold, but Bran thought there was something sad about an empty inn, and Hodor seemed to feel it too. “Hodor?” he said in a confused sort of way. “Hodor? Hodor?”  “This is good land.” Jojen picked up a handful of dirt, rubbing it between his fingers. “A village, an inn, a stout holdfast in the lake, all these apple trees... but where are the people, Bran? Why would they leave such a place?”  “They were afraid of the wildlings,” said Bran. “Wildlings come over the Wall or through the mountains, to raid and steal and carry off women. If they catch you, they make your skull into a cup to drink blood, Old Nan used to say. The Night’s Watch isn’t so strong as it was in Brandon’s day or Queen Alysanne’s, so more get through. The places nearest the Wall got raided so much the smallfolk moved south, into the mountains or onto the Umber lands east of the kingsroad. The Greatjon’s people get raided too, but not so much as the people who used to live in the Gift.”  Jojen Reed turned his head slowly, listening to music only he could hear. “We need to shelter here. There’s a storm coming. A bad one.”  Bran looked up at the sky. It had been a beautiful crisp clear autumn day, sunny and almost warm, but there were dark clouds off to the west now, that was true, and the wind seemed to be picking up. “There’s no roof on the inn and only the two walls,” he pointed out. “We should go out to the holdfast.”  “Hodor,” said Hodor. Maybe he agreed.  “We have no boat, Bran.” Meera poked through the leaves idly with her frog spear.  “There’s a causeway. A stone causeway, hidden under the water. We could walk out.” They could, anyway; he would have to ride on Hodor’s back, but at least he’d stay dry that way.  The Reeds exchanged a look. “How do you know that?” asked Jojen. “Have you been here before, my prince?”  “No. Old Nan told me. The holdfast has a golden crown, see?” He pointed across the lake. You could see patches of flaking gold paint up around the crenellations. “Queen Alysanne slept there, so they painted the merlons gold in her honor.”  “A causeway?” Jojen studied the lake. “You are certain?”  “Certain,” said Bran.  Meera found the foot of it easily enough, once she knew to look; a stone pathway three feet wide, leading right out into the lake. She took them out step by careful step, probing ahead with her frog spear. They could see where the path emerged again, climbing from the water onto the island and turning into a short flight of stone steps that led to the holdfast door.  Path, steps, and door were in a straight line, which made you think the causeway ran straight, but that wasn’t so. Under the lake it zigged and zagged, going a third of a way around the island before jagging back. The turns were treacherous, and the long path meant that anyone approaching would be exposed to arrow fire from the tower for a long time. The hidden stones were slimy and slippery too; twice Hodor almost lost his footing and shouted “HODOR!” in alarm before regaining his balance. The second time scared Bran badly. If Hodor fell into the lake with him in his basket, he could well drown, especially if the huge stableboy panicked and forgot that Bran was there, the way he did sometimes. Maybe we should have stayed at the inn, under the apple tree, he thought, but by then it was too late.  Thankfully there was no third time, and the water never got up past Hodor’s waist, though the Reeds were in it up to their chests. And before long they were on the island, climbing the steps to the holdfast. The door was still stout, though its heavy oak planks had warped over the years and it could no longer be closed completely. Meera shoved it open all the way, the rusted iron hinges screaming. The lintel was low. “Duck down, Hodor,” Bran said, and he did, but not enough to keep Bran from hitting his head. “That hurt,” he complained.  “Hodor,” said Hodor, straightening.  They found themselves in a gloomy strongroom, barely large enough to hold the four of them. Steps built into the inner wall of the tower curved away upward to their left, downward to their right, behind iron grates. Bran looked up and saw another grate just above his head. A murder hole. He was glad there was no one up there now to pour boiling oil down on them.  The grates were locked, but the iron bars were red with rust. Hodor grabbed hold of the lefthand door and gave it a pull, grunting with effort. Nothing happened. He tried pushing with no more success. He shook the bars, kicked, shoved against them and rattled them and punched the hinges with a huge hand until the air was filled with flakes of rust, but the iron door would not budge. The one down to the undervault was no more accommodating. “No way in,” said Meera, shrugging.  The murder hole was just above Bran’s head, as he sat in his basket on Hodor’s back. He reached up and grabbed the bars to give them a try. When he pulled down the grating came out of the ceiling in a cascade of rust and crumbling stone. “HODOR!” Hodor shouted. The heavy iron grate gave Bran another bang in the head, and crashed down near Jojen’s feet when he shoved it off of him. Meera laughed. “Look at that, my prince,” she said, “you’re stronger than Hodor.” Bran blushed.  With the grate gone, Hodor was able to boost Meera and Jojen up through the gaping murder hole. The crannogmen took Bran by the arms and drew him up after them. Getting Hodor inside was the hard part. He was too heavy for the Reeds to lift the way they’d lifted Bran. Finally Bran told him to go look for some big rocks. The island had no lack of those, and Hodor was able to pile them high enough to grab the crumbling edges of the hole and climb through. “Hodor,” he panted happily, grinning at all of them.  They found themselves in a maze of small cells, dark and empty, but Meera explored until she found the way back to the steps. The higher they climbed, the better the light; on the third story the thick outer wall was pierced by arrow slits, the fourth had actual windows, and the fifth and highest was one big round chamber with arched doors on three sides opening onto small stone balconies. On the fourth side was a privy chamber perched above a sewer chute that dropped straight down into the lake.  By the time they reached the roof the sky was completely overcast, and the clouds to the west were black. The wind was blowing so strong it lifted up Bran’s cloak and made it flap and snap. “Hodor,” Hodor said at the noise.  Meera spun in a circle. “I feel almost a giant, standing high above the world.”  “There are trees in the Neck that stand twice as tall as this,” her brother reminded her.  “Aye, but they have other trees around them just as high,” said Meera. “The world presses close in the Neck, and the sky is so much smaller. Here... feel that wind, Brother? And look how large the world has grown.”  It was true, you could see a long ways from up here. To the south the foothills rose, with the mountains grey and green beyond them. The rolling plains of the New Gift stretched away to all the other directions, as far as the eye could see. “I was hoping we could see the Wall from here,” said Bran, disappointed. “That was stupid, we must still be fifty leagues away.” just speaking of it made him feel tired, and cold as well. “Jojen, what will we do when we reach the Wall? My uncle always said how big it was. Seven hundred feet high, and so thick at the base that the gates are more like tunnels through the ice. How are we going to get past to find the three-eyed crow?”  “There are abandoned castles along the Wall, I’ve heard,” Jojen answered. “Fortresses built by the Night’s Watch but now left empty. One of them may give us our way through.”  The ghost castles, Old Nan had called them. Maester Luwin had once made Bran learn the names of every one of the forts along the Wall. That had been hard; there were nineteen of them all told, though no more than............
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