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“It is only another empty castle,” Meera Reed said as she gazed across the desolation of rubble, ruins, and weeds.  No, thought Bran, it is the Nightfort, and this is the end of the world. In the mountains, all he could think of was reaching the Wall and finding the three-eyed crow, but now that they were here he was filled with fears. The dream he’d had... the dream Summer had had... No, I mustn’t think about that dream. He had not even told the Reeds, though Meera at least seemed to sense that something was wrong. If he never talked of it maybe he could forget he ever dreamed it, and then it wouldn’t have happened and Robb and Grey Wind would still be...  “Hodor.” Hodor shifted his weight, and Bran with it. He was tired. They had been walking for hours. At least he’s not afraid. Bran was scared of this place, and almost as scared of admitting it to the Reeds. I’m a prince of the north, a Stark of Winterfell, almost a man grown, I have to be as brave as Robb.  Jojen gazed up at him with his dark green eyes. “There’s nothing here to hurt us, Your Grace.”  Bran wasn’t so certain. The Nightfort had figured in some of Old Nan’s scariest stories. It was here that Night’s King had reigned, before his name was wiped from the memory of man. This was where the Rat Cook had served the Andal king his prince-and-bacon pie, where the seventy-nine sentinels stood their watch, where brave young Danny Flint had been raped and murdered. This was the castle where King Sherrit had called down his curse on the Andals of old, where the ‘prentice boys had faced the thing that came in the night, where blind Symeon Star-Eyes had seen the hellhounds fighting. Mad Axe had once walked these yards and climbed these towers, butchering his brothers in the dark.  All that had happened hundreds and thousands of years ago, to be sure, and some maybe never happened at all. Maester Luwin always said that Old Nan’s stories shouldn’t be swallowed whole. But once his uncle came to see Father, and Bran asked about the Nightfort. Benjen Stark never said the tales were true, but he never said they weren’t; he only shrugged and said, “We left the Nightfort two hundred years ago,” as if that was an answer.  Bran forced himself to look around. The morning was cold but bright, the sun shining down from a hard blue sky, but he did not like the noises. The wind made a nervous whistling sound as it shivered through the broken towers, the keeps groaned and settled, and he could hear rats scrabbling under the floor of the great hall. The Rat Cook’s children running from their father. The yards were small forests where spindly trees rubbed their bare branches together and dead leaves scuttled like roaches across patches of old snow. There were trees growing where the stables had been, and a twisted white weirwood pushing up through the gaping hole in the roof of the burned kitchen. Even Summer was not at ease here. Bran slipped inside his skin, just for an instant, to get the smell of the place. He did not like that either.  And there was no way through.  Bran had told them there wouldn’t be. He had told them and told them, but Jojen Reed had insisted on seeing for himself. He had had a green dream, he said, and his green dreams did not lie. They don’t open any gates either, thought Bran.  The gate the Nightfort guarded had been sealed since the day the black brothers had loaded up their mules and garrons and departed for Deep Lake; its iron portcullis lowered, the chains that raised it carried off, the tunnel packed with stone and rubble all frozen together until they were as impenetrable as the Wall itself. “We should have followed Jon,” Bran said when he saw it. He thought of his bastard brother often, since the night that Summer had watched him ride off through the storm. “We should have found the kingsroad and gone to Castle Black.”  “We dare not, my prince,” Jojen said. “I’ve told you why.”  “But there are wildlings. They killed some man and they wanted to kill Jon too. Jojen, there were a hundred of them.”  “So you said. We are four. You helped your brother, if that was him in truth, but it almost cost you Summer.”  “I know,” said Bran miserably. The direwolf had killed three of them, maybe more, but there had been too many. When they formed a tight ring around the tall earless man, he had tried to slip away through the rain, but one of their arrows had come flashing after him, and the sudden stab of pain had driven Bran out of the wolf’s skin and back into his own. After the storm finally died, they had huddled in the dark without a fire, talking in whispers if they talked at all, listening to Hodor’s heavy breathing and wondering if the wildlings might try and cross the lake in the morning. Bran had reached out for Summer time and time again, but the pain he found drove him back, the way a red-hot kettle makes you pull your hand back even when you mean to grab it. Only Hodor slept that night, muttering “Hodor, hodor,” as he tossed and turned. Bran was terrified that Summer was off dying in the darkness. Please, you old gods, he prayed, you took Winterfell, and my father, and my legs, please don’t take Summer too. And watch over Jon Snow too, and make the wildlings go away.  No weirwoods grew on that stony island in the lake, yet somehow the old gods must have heard. The wildlings took their sweet time about departing the next morning, stripping the bodies of their dead and the old man they’d killed, even pulling a few fish from the lake, and there was a scary moment when three of them found the causeway and started to walk out... but the path turned and they didn’t, and two of them nearly drowned before the others pulled them out. The tall bald man yelled at them, his words echoing across the water in some tongue that even Jojen did not know, and a little while later they gathered up their shields and spears and marched off north by east, the same way Jon had gone. Bran wanted to leave too, to look for Summer, but the Reeds said no. “We will stay another night,” said Jojen, “put some leagues between us and the wildlings. You don’t want to meet them again, do you?” Late that afternoon Summer returned from wherever he’d been hiding, dragging his back leg. He ate parts of the bodies in the inn, driving off the crows, then swam out to the island. Meera had drawn the broken arrow from his leg and rubbed the wound with the juice of some plants she found growing around the base of the tower. The direwolf was still limping, but a little less each day, it seemed to Bran. The gods had heard.  “Maybe we should try another castle,” Meera said to her brother. “Maybe we could get through the gate somewhere else. I could go scout if you wanted, I’d make better time by myself.”  Bran shook his head. “If you go east there’s Deep Lake, then Queensgate. West is Icemark. But they’ll be the same, only smaller. All the gates are sealed except the ones at Castle Black, Eastwatch, and the Shadow Tower.”  Hodor said, “Hodor,” to that, and the Reeds exchanged a look. “At least I should climb to the top of the Wall,” Meera decided. “Maybe I’ll see something up there.”  “What could you hope to see?” Jojen asked.  “Something,” said Meera, and for once she was adamant.  It should be me. Bran raised his head to look up at the Wall, and imagined himself climbing inch by inch, squirming his fingers into cracks in the ice and kicking footholds with his toes. That made him smile in spite of everything, the dreams and the wildlings and Jon and everything. He had climbed the walls of Winterfell when he was little, and all the towers too, but none of them had been so high, and they were only stone. The Wall could look like stone, all grey and pitted, but then the clouds would break and the sun would hit it differently, and all at once it would transform, and stand there white and blue and glittering. It was the end of the world, Old Nan always said. On the other side were monsters and giants and ghouls, but they could not pass so long as the Wall stood strong. I want to stand on top with Meera, Bran thought. I want to stand on top and see.  But he was a broken boy with useless legs, so all he could do was watch from below as Meera went up in his stead.  She wasn’t really climbing, the way he used to climb. She was only walking up some steps that the Night’s Watch had hewn hundreds and thousands of years ago. He remembered Maester Luwin saying the Nightfort was the only castle where the steps had been cut from the ice of the Wall itself. Or maybe it had been Uncle Benjen. The newer castles had wooden steps, or stone ones, or long ramps of earth and gravel. Ice is too treacherous. It was his uncle who’d told him that. He said that the outer surface of the Wall wept icy tears sometimes, though the core inside stayed frozen hard as rock. The steps must have melted and refrozen a thousand times since the last black brothers left the castle, and every time they did they shrunk a little and got smoother and rounder and more treacherous.  And smaller. It’s almost like the Wall was swallowing them back into itself. Meera Reed was very surefooted, but even so she was going slowly, moving from nub to nub. in two places where the steps were hardly there at all she got down on all fours. It will be worse when she comes down, Bran thought, watching. Even so, he wished it was him up there. When she reached the top, crawling up the icy knobs that were all that remained of the highest steps, Meera vanished from his sight.  “When will she come down?” Bran asked Jojen.  “When she is ready. She will want to have a good look... at the Wall and what’s beyond. We should do the same down here.”  “Hodor?” said Hodor, doubtfully.  “We might find something,” Jojen insisted.  Or something might find us. Bran couldn’t say it, though; he did not want Jojen to think he was craven.  So they went exploring, Jojen Reed leading, Bran in his basket on Hodor’s back, Summer padding by their side. Once the direwolf bolted through a dark door and returned a moment later with a grey rat between his teeth. The Rat Cook, Bran thought, but it was the wrong color, and only as big as a cat. The Rat Cook was white, and almost as huge as a sow...  There were a lot of dark doors in the Nightfort, and a lot of rats. Bran could hear them scurrying through the vaults and cellars, and the maze of pitch-black tunnels that connected them. Jojen wanted to go poking around down there, but Hodor said “Hodor” to that, and Bran said “No.” There were worse things than rats down in the dark beneath the Nightfort.  “This seems an old place,” Jojen said as they walked down a gallery where the sunlight fell in dusty shafts through empty windows.  “Twice as old as Castle Black,” Bran said, remembering. “It was the first castle on the Wall, and the largest.” But it had also been the first abandoned, all the way back in the time of the Old King. Even then it had been three-quarters empty and too costly to maintain. Good Queen Alysanne had suggested that the Watch replace it with a smaller, newer castle at a spot only seven miles east, where the Wall curved along the shore of a beautiful green lake. Deep Lake had been paid for by the queen’s jewels and built by the men the Old King had sent north, and the black brothers had abandoned the Nightfort to the rats.  That was two centuries past, though. Now Deep Lake stood as empty as the castle it had replaced, and the Nightfort...  “There are ghosts here,” Bran said. Hodor had heard all the stories before, but Jojen might not have. “Old ghosts, from before the Old King, even before Aegon the Dragon, seventy-nine deserters who went south to be outlaws. One was Lord Ryswell’s youngest son, so when they reached the barrowlands they sought shelter at his castle, but Lord Ryswell took them captive and returned them to the Nightfort. The Lord Commander had holes hewn in the top of the Wall and he put the deserters in them and sealed them up alive in the ice. They have spears and horns and they all face north. The seventy-nine sentinels, they’re called. They left their posts in life, so in death their watch goes on forever. Years later, when Lord Ryswell was old and dying, he had himself carried to the Nightfort so he could take the black and stand beside his son. He’d sent him back to the Wall for honor’s sake, but he loved him still, so he came to share his watch.”  They spent half the day poking through the castle. Some of the towers had fallen down and others looked unsafe, but they climbed the bell tower (the bells were gone) and the rookery (the birds were gone). Beneath the brewhouse they found a vault of huge oaken casks that boomed hollowly when Hodor knocked on them. They found a library (the shelves and bins had collapsed, the books were gone, and rats were everywhere).  They found a dank and dim-lit dungeon with cells enough to hold five hundred captives, but when Bran grabbed hold of one of the rusted bars it broke off in his hand. Only one crumbling wall remained of the great hall, the bathhouse seemed to be sinking into the ground, and a huge thornbush had conquered the practice yard outside the armory where black brothers had once labored with spear and shield and sword. The armory and the forge still stood, however, though cobwebs, rats, and dust had taken the places of blades, bellows, and anvil. Sometimes Summer would hear sounds that Bran seemed deaf to, or bare his teeth at nothing, the fur on the back of his neck bristling... but the Rat Cook never put in an appearance, nor the seventy-nine sentinels, nor Mad Axe. Bran was much relieved. Maybe it is only a ruined empty castle.  By the time Meera returned, the sun was only a sword’s breath above the western hills. “What did you see?” her brother Jojen asked her.  “I saw the haunted forest,” she said in a wistful tone. “Hills rising wild as far as the eye can see, covered with trees that no axe has ever touched. I saw the sunlight glinting off a lake, and clouds sweeping in from the west. I saw patches of old snow, and icicles long as pikes. I even saw an eagle circling. I think he saw me too. I waved at him.”  “Did you see a way down?” asked Jojen.  She shook her head. “No. It’s a sheer drop, and the ice is so smooth I might be able to make the descent if I had a good rope and an axe to chop out handholds, but...”  “... but not us,” Jojen finished.  “No,” his sister agreed. “Are you sure this is the place you saw in your dream? Maybe we have the wrong castle.”  “No. This is the castle. There is a gate here.”  Yes, thought Bran, but it’s blocked by stone and ice.  As the sun began to set the shadows of the towers lengthened and the wind blew harder, sending gusts of dry dead leaves rattling through the yards. The gathering gloom put Bran in mind of another of Old Nan’s stories, the tale of Night’s King. He had been the thirteenth man to lead the Night’s Watch, she said; a warrior who knew no fear. “And that was the fault in him,” she would add, “for all men must know fear.” A woman was his downfall; a woman glimpsed from atop the Wall, with skin as white as the moon and eyes like blue stars. Fearing nothing, he chased her and caught her and loved her, though her skin was cold as ice, and when he gave his seed to her he gave his soul as well.  He brought her back to the Nightfort and proclaimed her a queen and himself her king, and with strange sorceries he bound his Sworn Brothers to his will. For thirteen years they had ruled, Night’s King and his corpse queen, till finally the Stark of Winterfell and Joramun of the wildlings had joined to free the Watch from bondage. After his fall, when it was found he had been sacrificing to the Others, all records of Night’s King had been destroyed, his very name forbidden.  “Some say he was a Bolton,” Old Nan would always end. “Some say a Magnar out of Skagos, some say Umber, Flint, or Norrey. Some would have you think he was a Woodfoot, from them who ruled Bear island before the ironmen came. He never was. He was a Stark, the brother of the man who brought him down.” She always pinched Bran on the nose then, he would never forget it. “He was a Stark of Winterfell, and who can say? Mayhaps his name was Brandon. Mayhaps he slept in this very bed in this very room.”  No, Bran thought, but he walked in this castle, where we’ll sleep tonight. He did not like that notion very much at all. Night’s King was only a man by light of day, Old Nan would always say, but the night was his to rule. And it’s getting dark.  The Reeds decided that they would sleep in the kitchens, a stone octagon with a broken Dorne. it looked to offer better shelter than most of the other buildings, even though a crooked weirwood had burst up through the slate floor beside the huge central well, stretching slantwise toward the hole in the roof, its bone-white branches reaching for the sun. It was a queer kind of tree, skinnier than any other weirwood that Bran had ever seen and faceless as well, but it made him feel as if the old gods were with him here, at least.  That was the only thing he liked about the kitchens, though. The roof was mostly there, so they’d be dry if it rained again, but he didn’t think they would ever get warm here. You could feel the cold seeping up through the slate floor. Bran did not like the shadows either, or the huge brick ovens that surrounded them like open mouths, or the rusted meat hooks, or the scars and stains he saw in the butcher’s block along one wall. That was where the Rat Cook chopped the prince to pieces, he knew, and he baked the pie in one of these ovens.  The well was the thing he liked the least, though. It was a good twelve feet across, all stone, with steps built into its side, circling down and down into darkness. The walls were damp and covered with niter, but none of them could see the water at the bottom, not even Meera with her sharp hunter’s eyes. “Maybe it doesn’t have a bottom,” Bran said uncertainly.  Hodor peered over the knee-high lip of the well and said, “HODOR!” The word echoed down the well, “Hodorhodorhodorhodor,” fainter and fainter, “hodorhodorhodorhodor,” until it was less than a whisper. Hodor looked startled. Then he laughed, and bent to scoop a broken piece of slate off the floor.  “Hodor, don’t!” said Bran, but too late. Hodor tossed the slate over the edge. “You shouldn’t have done that. You don’t know what’s down there. You might have hurt something, or... or woken something up.,,  Hodor looked at him innocently. “Hodor?”  Far, far, far below, they heard the sound as the stone found water. it wasn’t a splash, not truly. It was more a gulp, as if whatever was below had opened a quivering gelid mouth to swallow Hodor’s stone. Faint echoes traveled up the well, and for a moment Bran thought he heard something moving, thrashing about in the water. “Maybe we shouldn’t stay here,” he said uneasily.  “By the well?” asked Meera. “Or in the Nightfort?”  “Yes,” said Bran.  She laughed, and sent Hodor out to gather wood. Summer went too. It was almost dark by then, and the direwolf wanted to hunt.  Hodor returned alone with both arms full of deadwood and broken branches. Jojen Reed took his flint and knife and set about lighting a fire while Meera boned the fish she’d caught at the last stream they’d crossed. Bran wondered how many years had passed since there had last been a supper cooked in the kitchens of the Nightfort. He wondered who had cooked it too, though maybe it was better not to know.  When the flames were blazing nicely Meera put the fish on. At least it’s not a meat pie. The Rat Cook had cooked the son of the Andal king in a big pie with onions, carrots, mushrooms, lots of pepper and salt, a rasher of bacon, and a dark red Dornish wine. Then he served him to his father, who praised the taste and had a second slice. Afterward the gods transformed the cook into a monstrous white rat who could only cat his own young. He had roamed the Nightfort ever since, devouring his children, but still his hunger was not sated. “It was not for ............
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