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The ground was littered with pine needles and blown leaves, a carpet of green and brown still damp from the recent rains. It squished beneath their feet. Huge bare oaks, tall sentinels, and hosts of soldier pines stood all around them. On a hill above them was another roundtower, ancient and empty, thick green moss crawling up its side almost to the summit. “Who built that, all of stone like that?” Ygritte asked him. “Some king?”  “No. just the men who used to live here.”  “What happened to them?”  “They died or went away.” Brandon’s Gift had been farmed for thousands of years, but as the Watch dwindled there were fewer hands to plow the fields, tend the bees, and plant the orchards, so the wild had reclaimed many a field and hall. In the New Gift there had been villages and holdfasts whose taxes, rendered in goods and labor, helped feed and clothe the black brothers. But those were largely gone as well.  “They were fools to leave such a castle,” said Ygritte.  “It’s only a towerhouse. Some little lordling lived there once, with his family and a few sworn men. When raiders came he would light a beacon from the roof. Winterfell has towers three times the size of that.”  She looked as if she thought he was making that up. “How could men build so high, with no giants to lift the stones?”  In legend, Brandon the Builder had used giants to help raise Winterfell, but Jon did not want to confuse the issue. “Men can build a lot higher than this. In Oldtown there’s a tower taller than the Wall.” He could tell she did not believe him. If I could show her Winterfell... give her a flower from the glass gardens, feast her in the Great Hall, and show her the stone kings on their thrones. We could bathe in the hot pools, and love beneath the heart tree while the old gods watched over us.  The dream was sweet... but Winterfell would never be his to show. It belonged to his brother, the King in the North. He was a Snow, not a Stark. Bastard, oathbreaker, and turncloak...  “Might be after we could come back here, and live in that tower,” she said. “Would you want that, Jon Snow? After?”  After. The word was a spear thrust. After the war. After the conquest. After the wildlings break the Wall...  His lord father had once talked about raising new lords and settling them in the abandoned holdfasts as a shield against wildlings. The plan would have required the Watch to yield back a large part of the Gift, but his uncle Benjen believed the Lord Commander could be won around, so long as the new lordlings paid taxes to Castle Black rather than Winterfell. “It is a dream for spring, though,” Lord Eddard had said. “Even the promise of land will not lure men north with a winter coming on.”  If winter had come and gone more quickly and spring had followed in its turn, I might have been chosen to hold one of these towers in my father’s name. Lord Eddard was dead, however, his brother Benjen lost; the shield they dreamt together would never be forged. “This land belongs to the Watch,” Jon said.  Her nostrils flared. “No one lives here.”  “Your raiders drove them off.”  “They were cowards, then. if they wanted the land they should have stayed and fought.”  “Maybe they were tired of fighting. Tired of barring their doors every night and wondering if Rattleshirt or someone like him would break them down to carry off their wives. Tired of having their harvests stolen, and any valuables they might have. It’s easier to move beyond the reach of raiders.” But if the Wall should fail, all the north will lie within the reach of raiders.  “You know nothing, Jon Snow. Daughters are taken, not wives. You’re the ones who steal. You took the whole world, and built the Wall t’ keep the free folk out.”  “Did we?” Sometimes Jon forgot how wild she was, and then she would remind him. “How did that happen?”  “The gods made the earth for all men t’ share. Only when the kings come with their crowns and steel swords, they claimed it was all theirs. My trees, they said, you can’t eat them apples. My stream, you can’t fish here. My wood, you’re not t’hunt. My earth, my water, my castle, my daughter, keep your hands away or I’ll chop ‘em off, but maybe if you kneel t’ me I’ll let you have a sniff. You call us thieves, but at least a thief has t’ be brave and clever and quick. A kneeler only has t’ kneel.” “Harma and the Bag of Bones don’t come raiding for fish and apples. They steal swords and axes. Spices, silks, and furs. They grab every coin and ring and jeweled cup they can find, casks of wine in summer and casks of beef in winter, and they take women in any season and carry them off beyond the Wall.”  “And what if they do? I’d sooner be stolen by a strong man than be given t’ some weakling by my father.”  “You say that, but how can you know? What if you were stolen by someone you hated?”  “He’d have t’ be quick and cunning and brave t’ steal me. So his sons would be strong and smart as well. Why would I hate such a man as that?”  “Maybe he never washes, so he smells as rank as a bear.”  “Then I’d push him in a stream or throw a bucket o’ water on him. Anyhow, men shouldn’t smell sweet like flowers.”  “What’s wrong with flowers?”  “Nothing, for a bee. For bed I want one o’ these.” Ygritte made to grab the front of his breeches.  Jon caught her wrist. “What if the man who stole you drank too much?” he insisted. “What if he was brutal or cruel?” He tightened his grip to make a point. “What if he was stronger than you, and liked to beat you bloody?”  “I’d cut his throat while he slept. You know nothing, Jon Snow.” Ygritte twisted like an eel and wrenched away from him.  I know one thing. I know that you are wildling to the bone. It was easy to forget that sometimes, when they were laughing together, or kissing. But then one of them would say something, or do something, and he would suddenly be reminded of the wall between their worlds.  “A man can own a woman or a man can own a knife,” Ygritte told him, “but no man can own both. Every little girl learns that from her mother.” She raised her chin defiantly and gave her thick red hair a shake. “And men can’t own the land no more’n they can own the sea or the sky. You kneelers think you do, but Mance is going t’ show you different.”  It was a fine brave boast, but it rang hollow. Jon glanced back to make certain the Magnar was not in earshot. Errok, Big Boil, and Hempen Dan were walking a few yards behind them, but paying no attention. Big Boil was complaining of his arse. “Ygritte,” he said in a low voice, “Mance cannot win this war.”  “He can!” she insisted. “You know nothing, Jon Snow. You have never seen the free folk fight!”  Wildlings fought like heroes or demons, depending on who you talked to, but it came down to the same thing in the end. They fight with reckless courage, every man out for glory. “I don’t doubt that you’re all very brave, but when it comes to battle, discipline beats valor every time. In the end Mance will fail as all the Kings-beyond-the-Wall have failed before him. And when he does, you’ll die. All of you.”  Ygritte had looked so angry he thought she was about to strike him. “All of us,” she said. “You too. You’re no crow now, Jon Snow. I swore you weren’t, so you better not be.” She pushed him back against the trunk of a tree and kissed him, full on the lips right there in the midst of the ragged column. Jon heard Grigg the Goat urging her on. Someone else laughed. He kissed her back despite all that. When they finally broke apart, Ygritte was flushed. “You’re mine,” she whispered. “Mine, as I’m yours. And if we die, we die. All men must die, Jon Snow. But first we’ll live.”  “Yes.” His voice was thick. “First we’ll live.”  She grinned at that, showing Jon the crooked teeth that he had somehow come to love. Wildling to the bone, he thought again, with a sick sad feeling in the pit of his stomach. He flexed the fingers of his sword hand, and wondered what Ygritte would do if she knew his heart. Would she betray him if he sat her down and told her that he was still Ned Stark’s son and a man of the Night’s Watch? He hoped not, but he dare not take that risk. Too many lives depended on his somehow reaching Castle Black before the Magnar... assuming he found a chance to escape the wildlings.  They had descended the south face of the Wall at Greyguard, abandoned for two hundred years. A section of the huge stone steps had collapsed a century before, but even so the descent was a good deal easier than the climb. From there Styr marched them deep into the Gift, to avoid the Watch’s customary patrols. Grigg the Goat led them past the few inhabited villages that remained in these lands. Aside from a few scattered roundtowers poking the sky like stone fingers, they saw no sign of man. Through cold wet hills and windy plains they marched, unwatched, unseen.  You must not balk, whatever is asked of you, the Halfhand had said. Ride with them, eat with them, fight with them, for as long as it takes. He’d ridden many leagues and walked for more, had shared their bread and salt, and Ygritte’s blankets as well, but still they did not trust him. Day and night the Therms watched him, alert for any signs of betrayal. He could not get away, and soon it would be too late.  Fight with them, Qhorin had said, before he surrendered his own life to Longclaw... but it had not come to that, till now. Once I shed a brother’s blood I am lost. I cross the Wall for good then, and there is no crossing back.  After each day’s march the Magnar summoned him to ask shrewd sharp questions about Castle Black, its garrison and defenses. Jon lied where he dared and feigned ignorance a few times, but Grigg the Goat and Errok listened as well, and they knew enough to make Jon careful. Too blatant a lie would betray him.  But the truth was terrible. Castle Black had no defenses, but for the Wall itself. It lacked even wooden palisades or earthen dikes. The “castle” was nothing more than a cluster of towers and keeps, two-thirds of them falling into ruin. As for the garrison, the Old Bear had taken two hundred on his ranging. Had any returned? Jon could not know. Perhaps four hundred remained at the castle, but most of those were builders or stewards, not rangers.  The Therms were hardened warriors, and more disciplined than the common run of wildling; no doubt that was why Mance had chosen them. The defenders of Castle Black would include blind Maester Aemon and his half-blind steward Clydas, one-armed Donal Noye, drunken Septon Cellador, Deaf Dick Follard, Three-Finger Hobb the cook, old Ser Wynton Stout, as well as Halder and Toad and Pyp and Albett and the rest of the boys who’d trained with Jon. And commanding them would be red-faced Bowen Marsh, the plump Lord Steward who had been made castellan in Lord Mormont’s absence. Dolorous Edd sometimes called Marsh “the Old Pomegranate,” which fit him just as well as “the Old Bear” fit Mormont. “He’s the man you want in front when the foes are in the field,” Edd would say in his usual dour voice. “He’ll count them right up for you. A regular demon for counting, that one.”  If the Magnar takes Castle Black unawares, it will be red slaughter, boys butchered in their beds before they know they are under attack. Jon had to warn them, but how? He was never sent out to forage or hunt, nor allowed to stand a watch alone. And he feared for Ygritte as well. He could not take her, but if he left her, would the Magnar make her answer for his treachery? Two hearts that beat as one...  They shared the same sleeping skins every night, and he went to sleep with her head against his chest and her red hair tickling his chin. The smell of her had become a part of him. Her crooked teeth, the feel of her breast when he cupped it in his hand, the taste of her mouth... they were his joy and his despair. Many a night he lay with Ygritte warm beside him, wondering if his lord father had felt this confused about his mother, whoever she had been. Ygritte set the trap and Mance Rayder pushed me into it.  Every day he spent among the wildlings made what he had to do that much harder. He was going to have to find some way to betray these men, and when he did they would die. He did not want their friendship, any more than he wanted Ygritte’s love. And yet... the Therms spoke the Old Tongue and seldom talked to Jon at all, but it was different with Jarl’s raiders, the men who’d climbed the Wall. Jon was coming to know them despite himself: gaunt, quiet Errok and gregarious Grigg the Goat, the boys Quort and Bodger, Hempen Dan the ropernaker. The worst of the lot was Del, a horsefaced youth near Jon’s own age, who would talk dreamily of this wildling girl he meant to steal. “She’s lucky, like your Ygritte. She’s kissed by fire.”  Jon had to bite his tongue. He didn’t want to know about Del’s girl or Bodger’s mother, the place by the sea that Henk the Helm came from, how Grigg yearned to visit the green men on the isle of Faces, or the time a moose had chased Toefinger up a tree. He didn’t want to hear about the boil on Big Boil’s arse, how much ale Stone Thumbs could drink, or how Quort’s little brother had begged him not to go with Jarl. Quort could not have been older than fourteen, though he’d already stolen himself a wife and had a child on the way. “Might be he’ll be born in some castle,” the boy boasted. “Born in a castle like a lord!” He was very taken with the “castles” they’d seen, by which he meant watchtowers.  Jon wondered where Ghost was now. Had he gone to Castle Black, or was he was running with some wolfpack in the woods? He had no sense of the direwolf, not even in his dreams. It made him feel as if part of himself had been cut off. Even with Ygritte sleeping beside him, he felt alone. He did not want to die alone.  By that afternoon the trees had begun to thin, and they marched east over gently rolling plains. Grass rose waist high around them, and stands of wild wheat swayed gently when the wind came gusting, but for the most part the day was warm and bright. Toward sunset, however, clouds began to threaten in the west. They soon engulfed the orange sun, and Lerm foretold a bad storm coming. His mother was a woods witch, so all the raiders agreed he had a gift for foretelling the weather. “There’s a village close,” Grigg the Goat told the Magnar. “Two miles, three. We could shelter there.” Styr agreed at once.  It was well past dark and the storm was raging by the time they reached the place. The village sat beside a lake, and had been so long abandoned that most of the houses had collapsed. Even the small timber inn that must once have been a welcome sight for travelers stood half-fallen and roofless. We will find scant shelter here, Jon thought gloomily. Whenever the lightning flashed he could see a stone roundtower rising ............
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