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He dreamt he was back in Winterfell, limping past the stone kings on their thrones. Their grey granite eyes turned to follow him as he passed, and their grey granite fingers tightened on the hilts of the rusted swords upon their laps. You are no Stark, he could hear them mutter, in heavy granite voices. There is no place for you here. Go away. He walked deeper into the darkness. “Father?” he called. “Bran? Rickon?” No one answered. A chill wind was blowing on his neck. “Uncle?” he called. “Uncle Benjen? Father? Please, Father, help me.” Up above he heard drums. They are feasting in the Great Hall, but I am not welcome there. I am no Stark, and this is not my place. His crutch slipped and he fell to his knees. The crypts were growing darker. A light has gone out somewhere. “Ygritte?” he whispered. “Forgive me. Please.” But it was only a direwolf, grey and ghastly, spotted with blood, his golden eyes shining sadly through the dark...  The cell was dark, the bed hard beneath him. His own bed, he remembered, his own bed in his steward’s cell beneath the Old Bear’s chambers. By rights it should have brought him sweeter dreams. Even beneath the furs, he was cold. Ghost had shared his cell before the ranging, warming it against the chill of night. And in the wild, Ygritte had slept beside him. Both gone now. He had burned Ygritte himself, as he knew she would have wanted, and Ghost... Where are you? Was he dead as well, was that what his dream had meant, the bloody wolf in the crypts? But the wolf in the dream had been grey, not white. Grey, like Bran’s wolf. Had the Therms hunted him down and killed him after Queenscrown? If so, Bran was lost to him for good and all. Jon was trying to make sense of that when the horn blew.  The Horn of Winter, he thought, still confused from sleep. But Mance never found Joramun’s horn, so that couldn’t be. A second blast followed, as long and deep as the first. Jon had to get up and go to the Wall, he knew, but it was so hard...  He shoved aside his furs and sat. The pain in his leg seemed duller, nothing he could not stand. He had slept in his breeches and tunic and smallclothes, for the added warmth, so he had only to pull on his boots and don leather and mail and cloak. The horn blew again, two long blasts, so he slung Longclaw over one shoulder, found his crutch, and hobbled down the steps.  It was the black of night outside, bitter cold and overcast. His brothers were spilling out of towers and keeps, buckling their swordbelts and walking toward the Wall. Jon looked for Pyp and Grenn, but could not find them. Perhaps one of them was the sentry blowing the horn. It is Mance, he thought. He has come at last. That was good. We will fight a battle, and then we’ll rest. Alive or dead, we’ll rest.  Where the stair had been, only an immense tangle of charred wood and broken ice remained below the Wall. The winch raised them up now, but the cage was only big enough for ten men at a time, and it was already on its way up by the time Jon arrived. He would need to wait for its return. Others waited with him; Satin, Mully, Spare Boot, Kegs, big blond Hareth with his buck teeth. Everyone called him Horse, He had been a stablehand in Mole’s Town, one of the few moles who had stayed at Castle Black. The rest had run back to their fields and hovels, or their beds in the underground brothel. Horse wanted to take the black, though, the great buck-toothed fool. Zei remained as well, the whore who’d proved so handy with a crossbow, and Noye had kept three orphan boys whose father had died on the steps. They were young - nine and eight and five - but no one else seemed to want them.  As they waited for the cage to come back, Clydas brought them cups of hot mulled wine, while Three-Finger Hobb passed out chunks of black bread. Jon took a heel from him and gnawed on it.  “Is it Mance Rayder?” Satin asked anxiously.  “We can hope so.” There were worse things than wildlings in the dark. Jon remembered the words the wildling king had spoken on the Fist of the First Men, as they stood amidst that pink snow. When the dead walk, walls and stakes and swords mean nothing. You cannot fight the dead, Jon Snow. No man knows that half so well as me. Just thinking of it made the wind seem a little colder.  Finally the cage came clanking back down, swaying at the end of the long chain, and they crowded in silently and shut the door.  Mully yanked the bell rope three times. A moment later they began to rise, by fits and starts at first, then more smoothly. No one spoke. At the top the cage swung sideways and they clambered out one by one. Horse gave Jon a hand down onto the ice. The cold hit him in the teeth like a fist.  A line of fires burned along the top of the Wall, contained in iron baskets on poles taller than a man. The cold knife of the wind stirred and swirled the flames, so the lurid orange light was always shifting. Bundles of quarrels, arrows, spears, and scorpion bolts stood ready on every hand. Rocks were piled ten feet high, big wooden barrels of pitch and lamp oil lined up beside them. Bowen Marsh had left Castle Black well supplied in everything save men. The wind was whipping at the black cloaks of the scarecrow sentinels who stood along the ramparts, spears in hand. “I hope it wasn’t one of them who blew the horn,” Jon said to Donal Noye when he limped up beside him.  “Did you hear that?” Noye asked.  There was the wind, and horses, and something else. “A mammoth,” Jon said. “That was a mammoth.”  The armorer’s breath was frosting as it blew from his broad, flat nose. North of the Wall was a sea of darkness that seemed to stretch forever. Jon could make out the faint red glimmer of distant fires moving through the wood. It was Mance, certain as sunrise. The Others did not light torches.  “How do we fight them if we can’t see them?” Horse asked.  Donal Noye turned toward the two great trebuchets that Bowen Marsh had restored to working order. “Give me light!” he roared.  Barrels of pitch were loaded hastily into the slings and set afire with a torch. The wind fanned the flames to a brisk red fury. “NOW!” Noye bellowed. The counterweights plunged downward, the throwing arms rose to thud against the padded crossbars. The burning pitch went tumbling through the darkness, casting an eerie flickering light upon the ground below. Jon caught a glimpse of mammoths moving ponderously through the half-light, and just as quickly lost them again. A dozen, maybe more. The barrels struck the earth and burst. They heard a deep bass trumpeting, and a giant roared something in the Old Tongue, his voice an ancient thunder that sent shivers up Jon’s spine.  “Again!” Noye shouted, and the trebuchets were loaded once more. Two more barrels of burning pitch went crackling through the gloom to come crashing down amongst the foe. This time one of them struck a dead tree, enveloping it in flame. Not a dozen mammoths, Jon saw, a hundred.  He stepped to the edge of the precipice. Careful, he reminded himself, it is a long way down. Red Alyn sounded his sentry’s horn once more, Aaaaahoooooooooooooooooooooooooo, aaaaahoooooooooooooooooooo. And now the wildlings answered, not with one horn but with a dozen, and with drums and pipes as well. We are come, they seemed to say, we are come to break your Wall, to take your lands and steal your daughters. The wind howled, the trebuchets creaked and thumped, the barrels flew. Behind the giants and the mammoths, Jon saw men advancing on the Wall with bows and axes. Were there twenty or twenty thousand? In the dark there was no way to tell. This is a battle of blind men, but Mance has a few thousand more of them than we do.  “The gate!” Pyp cried out. “They’re at the GATE!”  The Wall was too big to be stormed by any conventional means; too high for ladders or siege towers, too thick for battering rams. No catapult could throw a stone large enough to breach it, and if you tried to set it on fire, the icemelt would quench the flames. You could climb over, as the raiders did near Greyguard, but only if you were strong and fit and sure-handed, and even then you might end up like Jarl, impaled on a tree. They must take the gate, or they cannot pass. But the gate was a crooked tunnel through the ice, smaller than any castle gate in the Seven Kingdoms, so narrow that rangers must lead their garrons through single file. Three iron grates closed the inner passage, each locked and chained and protected by a murder hole. The outer door was old oak, nine inches thick and studded with iron, not easy to break through. But Mance has mammoths, he reminded himself, and giants as well.  “Must be cold down there,” said Noye. “What say we warm them up, lads?” A dozen jars of lamp oil had been lined up on the precipice. Pyp ran down the line with a torch, setting them alight. Owen the Oaf followed, shoving them over the edge one by one. Tongues of pale yellow fire swirled around the jars as they plunged downward. When the last was gone, Grenn kicked loose the chocks on a barrel of pitch and sent it rumbling and rolling over the edge as well. The sounds below changed to shouts and screams, sweet music to their ears.  Yet still the drums beat on, the trebuchets shuddered and thumped, and the sound of skinpipes came wafting through the night like the songs of strange fierce birds. Septon Cellador began to sing as well, his voice tremulous and thick with wine.  Gentle Mother, font of mercy, save our sons from war, we pray, stay the swords and stay the arrows, let them know...  Donal Noye rounded on him. “Any man here stays his sword, I’ll chuck his puckered arse right off this Wall... starting with you, Septon. Archers! Do we have any bloody archers?”  “Here,” said Satin.  “And here,” said Mully. “But how can I find a target? It’s black as the inside of a pig’s belly. Where are they?”  Noye pointed north. “Loose enough arrows, might be you’ll find a few. At least you’ll make them fretful.” He looked around the ring of firelit faces. “I need two bows and two spears to help me hold the tunnel if they break the gate.” More than ten stepped forward, and the smith picked his four. “Jon, you have the Wall till I return.”  For a moment Jon thought he had misheard. It had sounded as if Noye were leaving him in command. “My lord?”  “Lord? I’m a blacksmith. I said, the Wall is yours.”  There are older men, Jon wanted to say, better men. I am still as green as summer grass. I’m wounded, and I stand accused of desertion. His mouth had gone bone dry. “Aye,” he managed.  Afterward it would seem to Jon Snow as if he’d dreamt that night. Side by side with the straw soldiers, with longbows or crossbows clutched in half-frozen hands, his archers launched a hundred flights of arrows against men they never saw. From time to time a wildling arrow came flying back in answer. He sent men to the smaller catapults and filled the air with jagged rocks the size of a giant’s fist, but the darkness swallowed them as a man might swallow a handful of nuts. Mammoths trumpeted in the gloom, strange voices called out in stranger tongues, and Septon Cellador prayed so loudly and drunkenly for the dawn to come that Jon was tempted to chuck him over the edge himself. They heard a mammoth dying at their feet and saw another lurch burning through the woods, trampling down men and trees alike. The wind blew cold and colder. Hobb rode up the chain with cups of onion broth, and Owen and Clydas served them to the archers where they stood, so they could gulp them down between arrows. Zei took a place among them with her crossbow. Hours of repeated jars and shocks knocked something loose on the right-hand trebuchet, and its counterweight came crashing free, suddenly and catastrophically, wrenching the throwing arm sideways with a splintering crash. The left-hand trebuchet kept throwing, but the wildlings had quickly learned to shun the place where its loads were landing.  We should have twenty trebuchets, not two, and they should be mounted on sledges and turntables so we could move them. It was a futile thought. He might as well wish for another thousand men, and maybe a dragon or three.  Donal Noye did not return, nor any of them who’d gone down with him to hold that black cold tunnel. The Wall is mine, Jon reminded himself whenever he felt his strength flagging. He had taken up a longbow himself, and his fingers felt crabbed and stiff, half-frozen. His fever was back as well, and his leg would tremble uncontrollably, sending a white-hot knife of pain right through him. One more arrow, and I’ll rest, he told himself, half a hundred times. Just one more. Whenever his quiver was empty, one of the orphaned moles would bring him another. One more quiver, and I’m done. It couldn’t be long until the dawn.  When morning came, none of them quite realized it at first. The world was still dark, but the black had turned to grey and shapes were beginning to emerge half -seen from the gloom. Jon lowered his bow to stare at the mass of heavy clouds that covered the eastern sky. He could see a glow behind them, but perhaps he was only dreaming. He notched another arrow.  Then the rising sun broke through to send pale lances of light across the battleground. Jon found himself holding his breath as he looked out over the half-mile swath of cleared land that lay between the Wall and the edge of the forest. In half a night they had turned it into a wasteland of blackened grass, bubbling pitch, shattered stone, and corpses. The carcass of the burned mammoth was already drawing crows. There were giants dead on the ground as well, but behind them...  Someone moaned to his left, and he heard Septon Cellador say, “Mother have mercy, oh. Oh, oh, oh, Mother have mercy.”  Beneath the trees were all the wildlings in the world; raiders and giants, wargs and skinchangers, mountain men, salt sea sailors, ice river cannibals, cave dwellers with dyed faces, dog chariots from the Frozen Shore, Hornfoot men with their soles like boiled leather, all the queer wild folk Mance had gathered to break the Wall. This is not your land, Jon wanted to shout at them. There is no place for you here, Go away. He could hear Tormund Giantsbane laughing at that. “You know nothing, Jon Snow,” Ygritte would have said. He flexed his sword hand, opening and closing the fingers, though he knew full well that swords would not come into it up here.  He was chilled and feverish, and suddenly the weight of the longbow was too much. The battle with the Magnar had been nothing, he realized, and the night fight less than nothing, only a probe, a dagger in the dark to try and catch them unprepared. The real battle was only now beginning.  “I never knew there would be so many,” Satin said.  Jon had. He had seen them before, but not like this, not drawn up in battle array. On the march the wildling column had sprawled over long leagues like ............
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