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They woke to the smoke of Mole’s Town burning.  Atop the King’s Tower, Jon Snow leaned on the padded crutch that Maester Aemon had given him and watched the grey plume rise. Styr had lost all hope of taking Castle Black unawares when Jon escaped him, yet even so, he need not have warned of his approach so bluntly. You may kill us, he reflected, but no one will be butchered in their beds. That much I did, at least.  His leg still hurt like blazes when he put his weight on it. He’d needed Clydas to help him don his fresh-washed blacks and lace up his boots that morning, and by the time they were done he’d wanted to drown himself in the milk of the poppy. Instead he had settled for half a cup of dreamwine, a chew of willow bark, and the crutch. The beacon was burning on Weatherback Ridge, and the Night’s Watch had need of every man.  “I can fight,” he insisted when they tried to stop him.  “Your leg’s healed, is it?” Noye snorted. “You won’t mind me giving it a little kick, then?”  “I’d sooner you didn’t. It’s stiff, but I can hobble around well enough, and stand and fight if you have need of me.”  “I have need of every man who knows which end of the spear to stab into the wildlings.”  “The pointy end.” Jon had told his little sister something like that once, he remembered.  Noye rubbed the bristle on his chin. “Might be you’ll do. We’ll put you on a tower with a longbow, but if you bloody well fall off don’t come crying to me.”  He could see the kingsroad wending its way south through stony brown fields and over windswept hills. The Magnar would be coming up that road before the day was done, his Therns marching behind him with axes and spears in their hands and their bronze-and-leather shields on their backs. Grigg the Goat, Quort, Big Boil, and the rest will be coming as well. And Ygritte. The wildlings had never been his friends, he had not allowed them to be his friends, but her...  He could feel the throb of pain where her arrow had gone through the meat and muscle of his thigh. He remembered the old man’s eyes too, and the black blood rushing from his throat as the storm cracked overhead. But he remembered the grotto best of all, the look of her naked in the torchlight, the taste of her mouth when it opened under his. Ygritte, stay away. Go south and raid, go hide in one of those roundtowers you liked so well. You’ll find nothing here but death.  Across the yard, one of the bowmen on the roof of the old Flint Barracks had unlaced his breeches and was pissing through a crenel. Mully, he knew from the man’s greasy orange hair. Men in black cloaks were visible on other roofs and tower tops as well, though nine of every ten happened to be made of straw. “The scarecrow sentinels,” Donal Noye called them. Only we’re the crows, Jon mused, and most of us were scared enough.  Whatever you called them, the straw soldiers had been Maester Aemon’s notion. They had more breeches and jerkins and tunics in the storerooms than they’d had men to fill them, so why not stuff some with straw, drape a cloak around their shoulders, and set them to standing watches? Noye had placed them on every tower and in half the windows. Some were even clutching spears, or had crossbows cocked under their arms. The hope was that the Therms would see them from afar and decide that Castle Black was too well defended to attack.  Jon had six scarecrows sharing the roof of the King’s Tower with him, along with two actual breathing brothers. Deaf Dick Follard sat in a crenel, methodically cleaning and oiling the mechanism of his crossbow to make sure the wheel turned smoothly, while the Oldtown boy wandered restlessly around the parapets, fussing with the clothes on straw men. Maybe he thinks they will fight better if they’re posed just right. Or maybe this waiting is fraying his nerves the way it’s fraying mine.  The boy claimed to be eighteen, older than Jon, but he was green as summer grass for all that. Satin, they called him, even in the wool and mail and boiled leather of the Night’s Watch; the name he’d gotten in the brothel where he’d been born and raised. He was pretty as a girl with his dark eyes, soft skin, and raven’s ringlets. Half a year at Castle Black had toughened up his hands, however, and Noye said he was passable with a crossbow. Whether he had the courage to face what was coming, though...  Jon used the crutch to limp across the tower top. The King’s Tower was not the castle’s tallest - the high, slim, crumbling Lance held that honor, though Othell Yarwyck had been heard to say it might topple any day. Nor was the King’s Tower strongest - the Tower of Guards beside the kingsroad would be a tougher nut to crack. But it was tall enough, strong enough, and well placed beside the Wall, overlooking the gate and the foot of the wooden stair.  The first time he had seen Castle Black with his own eyes, Jon had wondered why anyone would be so foolish as to build a castle without walls. How could it be defended?  “It can’t,” his uncle told him. “That is the point. The Night’s Watch is pledged to take no part in the quarrels of the realm. Yet over the centuries certain Lords Commander, more proud than wise, forgot their vows and near destroyed us all with their ambitions. Lord Commander Runcel Hightower tried to bequeathe the Watch to his bastard son. Lord Commander Rodrik Flint thought to make himself King-beyond-the-Wall. Tristan Mudd, Mad Marq Rankenfell, Robin Hill... did you know that six hundred years ago, the commanders at Snowgate and the Nightfort went to war against each other? And when the Lord Commander tried to stop them, they joined forces to murder him? The Stark in Winterfell had to take a hand... and both their heads. Which he did easily, because their strongholds were not defensible. The Night’s Watch had nine hundred and ninety-six Lords Commander before Jeor Mormont, most of them men of courage and honor... but we have had cowards and fools as well, our tyrants and our madmen. We survive because the lords and kings of the Seven Kingdoms know that we pose no threat to them, no matter who should lead us. Our only foes are to the north, and to the north we have the Wall.”  Only now those foes have gotten past the Wall to come up from the south, Jon reflected, and the lords and kings of the Seven Kingdoms have forgotten us. We are caught between the hammer and the anvil. Without a wall Castle Black could not be held; Donal Noye knew that as well as any. “The castle does them no good,” the armorer told his little garrison. “Kitchens, common hall, stables, even the towers... let them take it all. We’ll empty the armory and move what stores we can to the top of the Wall, and make our stand around the gate.”  So Castle Black had a wall of sorts at last, a crescent-shaped barricade ten feet high made of stores; casks of nails and barrels of salt mutton, crates, bales of black broadcloth, stacked logs, sawn timbers, firehardened stakes, and sacks and sacks of grain. The crude rampart enclosed the two things most worth defending; the gate to the north, and the foot of the great wooden switchback stair that clawed and climbed its way up the face of the Wall like a drunken thunderbolt, supported by wooden beams as big as tree trunks driven deep into the ice.  The last few moles were still making the long climb, Jon saw, urged on by his brothers. Grenn was carrying a little boy in his arms, while Pyp, two flights below, let an old man lean upon his shoulder. The oldest villagers still waited below for the cage to make its way back down to them. He saw a mother pulling along two children, one on either hand, as an older boy ran past her up the steps. Two hundred feet above them, Sky Blue Su and Lady Meliana (who was no lady, all her friends agreed) stood on a landing, looking south. They had a better view of the smoke than he did, no doubt. Jon wondered about the villagers who had chosen not to flee. There were always a few, too stubborn or too stupid or too brave to run, a few who preferred to fight or hide or bend the knee. Maybe the Therms would spare them.  The thing to do would be to take the attack to them, he thought. With fifty rangers well mounted, we could cut them apart on the road. They did not have fifty rangers, though, nor half as many horses. The garrison had not returned, and there was no way to know just where they were, or even whether the riders that Noye had sent out had reached them.  We are the garrison, Jon told himself, and look at us. The brothers Bowen Marsh had left behind were old men, cripples, and green boys, just as Donal Noye had warned him. He could see some wrestling barrels up the steps, others on the barricade; stout old Kegs, as slow as ever, Spare Boot hopping along briskly on his carved wooden leg, half-mad Easy who fancied himself Florian the Fool reborn, Dornish Dilly, Red Alyn of the Rosewood, Young Henly (well past fifty), Old Henly (well past seventy), Hairy Hal, Spotted Pate of Maidenpool. A couple of them saw Jon looking down from atop the King’s Tower and waved up at him. Others turned away. They still think me a turncloak. That was a bitter draft to drink, but Jon could not blame them. He was a bastard, after all. Everyone knew that bastards were wanton and treacherous by nature, having been born of lust and deceit. And he had made as many enemies as friends at Castle Black... Rast, for one. Jon had once threatened to have Ghost rip his throat out unless he stopped tormenting Samwell Tarly, and Rast did not forget things like that. He was raking dry leaves into piles under the stairs just now, but every so often he stopped long enough to give Jon a nasty look.  “No,” Donal Noye roared at three of the Mole’s Town men, down below. “The pitch goes to the hoist, the oil up the steps, crossbow bolts to the fourth, fifth, and sixth landings, spears to first and second. Stack the lard under the stair, yes, there, behind the planks. The casks of meat are for the barricade. Now, you poxy plow pushers, NOW!”  He has a lord’s voice, Jon thought. His father had always said that in battle a captain’s lungs were as important as his sword arm. “It does not matter how brave or brilliant a man is, if his commands cannot be heard,” Lord Eddard told his sons, so Robb and he used to climb the towers of Winterfell to shout at each other across the yard. Donal Noye could have drowned out both of them. The moles all went in terror of him, and rightfully so, since he was always threatening to rip their heads off.  Three-quarters of the village had taken Jon’s warning to heart and come to Castle Black for refuge. Noye had decreed that every man still spry enough to hold a spear or swing an axe would help defend the barricade, else they could damn well go home and take their chances with the Therms. He had emptied the armory to put good steel in their hands; big double-bladed axes, razor-sharp daggers, longswords, maces, spiked morningstars. Clad in studded leather jerkins and mail hauberks, with greaves for their legs and gorgets to keep their heads on their shoulders, a few of them even looked like soldiers. In a bad light. If you squint.  Noye had put the women and children to work as well. Those too young to fight would carry water and tend the fires, the Mole’s Town midwife would assist Clydas and Maester Aemon with any wounded, and Three-Finger Hobb suddenly had more spit boys, kettle stirrers, and onion choppers than he knew what to do with. Two of the whores had even offered to fight, and had shown enough skill with the crossbow to be given a place on the steps forty feet up.  “It’s cold.” Satin stood with his hands tucked into his armpits under his cloak. His cheeks were bright red.  Jon made himself smile. “The Frostfangs are cold. This is a brisk autumn day.”  “I hope I never see the Frostfangs then. I knew a girl in Oldtown who liked to ice her wine. That’s the best place for ice, I think. In wine.” Satin glanced south, frowned. “You think the scarecrow sentinels scared them off, my lord?”  “We can hope.” It was possible, Jon supposed... but more likely the wildlings had simply paused for a bit of rape and plunder in Mole’s Town. Or maybe Styr was waiting for nightfall, to move up under cover of darkness.  Midday came and went, with still no sign of Therms on the kingsroad. Jon heard footsteps inside the tower, though, and Owen the Oaf popped up out of the trapdoor, red-faced from the climb. He had a basket of buns under one arm, a wheel of cheese under the other, a bag of onions dangling from one hand. “Hobb said to feed you, in case you’re stuck up here awhile.”  That, or for our last meal. “Thank him for us, Owen.”  Dick Follard was deaf as a stone, but his nose worked well enough.  The buns were still warm from the oven when he went digging in the basket and plucked one out. He found a crock of butter as well, and spread some with his dagger. “Raisins,” he announced happily. “Nuts, too.” His speech was thick, but easy enough to understand once you got used to it.  “You can have mine too,” said Satin. “I’m not hungry.”  “Eat,” Jon told him. “There’s no knowing when you’ll have another chance.” He took two buns himself . The nuts were pine nuts, and besides the raisins there were bits of dried apple.  “Will the wildlings come today, Lord Snow?” Owen asked.  “You’ll know if they do,” said Jon. “Listen for the horns.”  “Two. Two is for wildlings.” Owen was tall, towheaded, and amiable, a tireless worker and surprisingly deft when it came to working wood and fixing catapults and the like, but as he’d gladly tell you, his mother had dropped him on his head when he was a baby, and half his wits had leaked out through his ear.  “You remember where to go?” Jon asked him.  “I’m to go to the stairs, Donal Noye says. I’m to go up to the third landing and shoot my crossbow down at the wildlings if they try to climb over the barrier. The third landing, one two three.” His head bobbed up and down. “If the wildlings attack, the king will come and help us, won’t he? He’s a mighty warrior, King Robert. He’s sure to come. Maester Aemon sent him a bird.”  There was no use telling him that Robert Baratheon was dead. He would forget it, as he’d forgotten it before. “Maester Aemon sent him a bird,” Jon agreed. That seemed to make Owen happy.  Maester Aemon had sent a lot of birds... not to one king, but to four. Wildlings at the gate, the message ran. The realm in danger. Send all the help you can to Castle Black, Even as far as Oldtown and the Citadel the ravens flew, and to half a hundred mighty lords in their castles. The northern lords offered their best hope, so to them Aemon had sent two birds. To the Umbers and the Boltons, to Castle Cerwyn and Torrhen’s Square, Karhold and Deepwood Motte, to Bear Island, Oldcastle, Widow’s Watch, White Harbor, Barrowton, and the Rills, to the mountain fastnesses of the Liddles, the Burleys, the Norreys, the Harclays, and the Wulls, the black birds brought their plea. Wildlings at the gate. The north in danger. Come with all your strength.  Well, ravens might have wings, but lords and kings do not. If help was coming, it would not come today.  As morning turned to afternoon, the smoke of Mole’s Town blew away and the southern sky was clear again. No clouds, thought Jon. That was good. Rain or snow could doom them all.  Clydas and Maester Aemon rode the winch cage up to safety at the top of the Wall, and most of the Mole’s Town wives as well. Men in black cloaks paced restlessly on the tower tops and shouted back and forth across the courtyards. Septon Cellador led the men on the barricade in a prayer, beseeching the Warrior to give them strength. Deaf Dick Follard curled up beneath his cloak and went to sleep. Satin walked a hundred leagues in circles, round and round the crenellations. The Wall wept and the sun crept across a hard blue sky. Near evenfall, Owen the Oaf returned with a loaf of black bread and a pail of Hobb’s best mutton, cooked in a thick broth of ale and onions. Even Dick woke up for that. They ate every bit of it, using chunks of bread to wipe the bottom of the pail. By the time they were done the sun was low in the west, the shadows sharp and black throughout the castle. “Light the fire,” Jon told Satin, “and fill the kettle with oil.”  He went downstairs himself to bar the door, to try and work some of the stiffness from his leg. That was a mistake, and Jon soon knew it, but he clutched the crutch and saw it through all the same. The door to the King’s Tower was oak studded with iron. It might delay the Therns, but it would not stop them if they wanted to come in. Jon slammed the bar down in its notches, paid a visit to the privy - it might well be his last chance - and hobbled back up to the roof, grimacing at the pain.  The west had gone the color of a blood bruise, but the sky above was cobalt blue, deepening to purple, and the stars were coming out. Jon sat between two merlons with only a scarecrow for company and watched the Stallion gallop up the sky. Or was it the Horned Lord? He wondered where Ghost was now. He wondered about Ygritte as well, and told himself that way lay madness.  They came in the night, of course. Like thieves, Jon thought. Like murderers.  Satin pissed himself when the horns blew, but Jon pretended not to notice. “Go shake Dick by the shoulder,” he told the Oldtown boy, “else he’s liable to sleep through the fight.”  “I’m frightened.” Satin’s face was a ghastly white.  “So are they.” Jon leaned his crutch up against a merlon and took up his longbow, bending the smooth th............
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