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JON
The wind was blowing wild from the east, so strong the heavy cage would rock whenever a gust got it in its teeth. It skirled along the Wall, shivering off the ice, making Jon’s cloak flap against the bars. The sky was slate grey, the sun no more than a faint patch of brightness behind the clouds. Across the killing ground, he could see the glimmer of a thousand campfires burning, but their lights seemed small and powerless against such gloom and cold.  A grim day. Jon Snow wrapped gloved hands around the bars and held tight as the wind hammered at the cage once more. When he looked straight down past his feet, the ground was lost in shadow, as if he were being lowered into some bottomless pit. Well, death is a bottomless pit of sorts, he reflected, and when this day’s work is done my name will be shadowed forever.  Bastard children were born from lust and lies, men said; their nature was wanton and treacherous. Once Jon had meant to prove them wrong, to show his lord father that he could be as good and true a son as Robb. I made a botch of that. Robb had become a hero king; if Jon was remembered at all, it would be as a turncloak, an oathbreaker, and a murderer. He was glad that Lord Eddard was not alive to see his shame.  I should have stayed in that cave with Ygritte. If there was a life beyond this one, he hoped to tell her that. She will claw my face the way the eagle did, and curse me for a coward, but I’ll tell her all the same. He flexed his sword hand, as Maester Aemon had taught him. The habit had become part of him, and he would need his fingers to be limber to have even half a chance of murdering Mance Rayder.  They had pulled him out this morning, after four days in the ice, locked up in a cell five by five by five, too low for him to stand, too tight for him to stretch out on his back. The stewards had long ago discovered that food and meat kept longer in the icy storerooms carved from the base of the Wall... but prisoners did not. “You will die in here, Lord Snow,” Ser Alliser had said just before he closed the heavy wooden door, and Jon had believed it. But this morning they had come and pulled him out again, and marched him cramped and shivering back to the King’s Tower, to stand before jowly Janos Slynt once more.  “That old maester says I cannot hang you,” Slynt declared. “He has written Cotter Pyke, and even had the bloody gall to show me the letter. He says you are no turncloak.”  “Aemon’s lived too long, my lord,” Ser Alliser assured him. “His wits have gone dark as his eyes.”  “Aye,” Slynt said. “A blind man with a chain about his neck, who does he think he is?”  Aemon Targaryen, Jon thought, a king’s son and a king’s brother and a king who might have been. But he said nothing.  “Still,” Slynt said, “I will not have it said that Janos Slynt hanged a man unjustly. I will not. I have decided to give you one last chance to prove you are as loyal as you claim, Lord Snow. One last chance to do your duty, yes!” He stood. “Mance Rayder wants to parley with us. He knows he has no chance now that Janos Slynt has come, so he wants to talk, this King-beyond-the-Wall. But the man is craven, and will not come to us. No doubt he knows I’d hang him. Hang him by his feet from the top of the Wall, on a rope two hundred feet long! But he will not come. He asks that we send an envoy to him.”  “We’re sending you, Lord Snow.” Ser Alliser smiled.  “Me.” Jon’s voice was flat. “Why me?”  “You rode with these wildlings,” said Thome. “Mance Rayder knows you. He will be more inclined to trust you.”  That was so wrong Jon might have laughed. “You’ve got it backward. Mance suspected me from the first. If I show up in his camp wearing a black cloak again and speaking for the Night’s Watch, he’ll know that I betrayed him.”  “He asked for an envoy, we are sending one,” said Slynt. “If you are too craven to face this turncloak king, we can return you to your ice cell. This time without the furs, I think. Yes.”  “No need for that, my lord,” said Ser Alliser. “Lord Snow will do as we ask. He wants to show us that he is no turncloak. He wants to prove himself a loyal man of the Night’s Watch.”  Thorne was much the more clever of the two, Jon realized; this had his stink all over it. He was trapped. “I’ll go,” he said in a clipped, curt voice.  “M’lord,” Janos Slynt reminded him. “You’ll address me -”  “I’ll go, mylord. But you are making a mistake, my lord. You are sending the wrong man, my lord. just the sight of me is going to anger Mance. My lord would have a better chance of reaching terms if he sent -  “Terms?” Ser Alliser chuckled.  “Janos Slynt does not make terms with lawless savages, Lord Snow. No, he does not.”  “We’re not sending you to talk with Mance Rayder,” Ser Alliser said. “We’re sending you to kill him.”  The wind whistled through the bars, and Jon Snow shivered. His leg was throbbing, and his head. He was not fit to kill a kitten, yet here he was. The trap had teeth. With Maester Aemon insisting on Jon’s innocence, Lord Janos had not dared to leave him in the ice to die. This was better. “Our honor means no more than our lives, so long as the realm is safe,” Qhorin Halfhand had said in the Frostfangs. He must remember that. Whether he slew Mance or only tried and failed, the free folk would kill him. Even desertion was impossible, if he’d been so inclined; to Mance he was a proven liar and betrayer.  When the cage jerked to a halt, Jon swung down onto the ground and rattled Longclaw’s hilt to loosen the bastard blade in its scabbard. The gate was a few yards to his left, still blocked by the splintered ruins of the turtle, the carcass of a mammoth ripening within. There were other corpses too, strewn amidst broken barrels, hardened pitch, and patches of burnt grass, all shadowed by the Wall. Jon had no wish to linger here. He started walking toward the wildling camp, past the body of a dead giant whose head had been crushed by a stone. A raven was pulling out bits of brain from the giant’s shattered skull. It looked up as he walked by. “Snow,” it screamed at him. “Snow, snow” Then it opened its wings and flew away.  No sooner had he started out than a lone rider emerged from the wildling camp and came toward him. He wondered if Mance was coming out to parley in no-man’s-land. That might make it easier, though nothing will make it easy. But as the distance between them diminished Jon saw that the horseman was short and broad, with gold rings glinting on thick arms and a white beard spreading out across his massive chest.  “Har!” Tormund boomed when they came together. “Jon Snow the crow. I feared we’d seen the last o’ you.”  “I never knew you feared anything, Tormund.”  That made the wildling grin. “Well said, lad. I see your cloak is black. Mance won’t like that. If you’ve come to change sides again, best climb back on that Wall o’ yours.”  “They’ve sent me to treat with the King-beyond-the-Wall.”  “Treat?” Tormund laughed. “Now there’s a word. Har! Mance wants to talk, that’s true enough. Can’t say he’d want to talk with you, though.”  “I’m the one they’ve sent.”  “I see that. Best come along, then. You want to ride?”  “I can walk.”  “You fought us hard here.” Tormund turned his garron back toward the wildling camp. “You and your brothers. I give you that. Two hundred dead, and a dozen giants. Mag himself went in that gate o’ yours and never did come out.”  “He died on the sword of a brave man named Donal Noye.”  “Aye? Some great lord was he, this Donal Noye? One of your shiny knights in their steel smallclothes?”  “A blacksmith. He only had one arm.”  “A one-armed smith slew Mag the Mighty? Har! That must o’ been a fight to see. Mance will make a song of it, see if he don’t.” Tormund took a waterskin off his saddle and pulled the cork. “This will warm us some. To Donal Noye, and Mag the Mighty.” He took a swig, and handed it down to Jon.  “To Donal Noye, and Mag the Mighty.” The skin was full of mead, but a mead so potent that it made Jon’s eyes water and sent tendrils of fire snaking through his chest. After the ice cell and the cold ride down in the cage, the warmth was welcome.  Tormund took the skin back and downed another swig, then wiped his mouth. “The Magnar of Therm swore t’us that he’d have the gate wide open, so all we’d need to do was stroll through singing. He was going to bring the whole Wall down.”  “He brought down part,” Jon said. “On his head.”  “Har!” said Tormund. “Well, I never had much use for Styr. When a man’s got no beard nor hair nor ears, you can’t get a good grip on him when you fight.” He kept his horse at a slow walk so Jon could limp beside him. “What happened to that leg?”  “An arrow. One of Ygritte’s, I think.”  “That’s a woman for you. One day she’s kissing you, the next she’s filling you with arrows.”  “She’s dead.”  “Aye?” Tormund gave a sad shake of the head. “A waste. If I’d been ten years younger, I’d have stolen her meself. That hair she had. Well, the hottest fires burn out quickest,” He lifted the skin of mead. “To Ygritte, kissed by fire!” He drank deep.  “To Ygritte, kissed by fire,” Jon repeated when Tormund handed him back the skin. He drank even deeper.  “Was it you killed her?”  “My brother.” Jon had never learned which one, and hoped he never would.  “You bloody crows.” Tormund’s tone was gruff, yet strangely gentle.  “That Longspear stole me daughter. Munda, me little autumn apple. Took her right out o’ my tent with all four o’ her brothers about. Toregg slept through it, the great lout, and Torwynd... well, Torwynd the Tame, that says all that needs saying, don’t it? The young ones gave the lad a fight, though.”  “And Munda?” asked Jon.  “She’s my own blood,” said Tormund proudly. “She broke his lip for him and bit one ear half off, and I hear he’s got so many scratches on his back he can’t wear a cloak. She likes him well enough, though. And why not? He don’t fight with no spear, you know. Never has. So where do you think he got that name? Har!”  Jon had to laugh. Even now, even here. Ygritte had been fond of Longspear Ryk. He hoped he found some joy with Tormund’s Munda. Someone needed to find some joy somewhere.  “You know nothing, Jon Snow,” Ygritte would have told him. I know that I am going to die, he thought. I know that much, at least. “All men die,” he could almost hear her say, “and women too, and every beast that flies or swims or runs. It’s not the when o’ dying that matters, it’s the how of it, Jon Snow.” Easy for you to say, he thought back. You died brave in battle, storming the castle of a foe. I’m going to die a turncloak and a killer. Nor would his death be quick, unless it came on the end of Mance’s sword.  Soon they were among the tents. It was the usual wildling camp; a sprawling jumble of cookfires and piss pits, children and goats wandering freely, sheep bleating among the trees, horse hides pegged up to dry. There was no plan to it, no order, no defenses. But there were men and women and animals everywhere.  Many ignored him, but for every one who went about his business there were ten who stopped to stare; children squatting by the fires, old women in dog carts, cave dwellers with painted faces, raiders with claws and snakes and severed heads painted on their shields, all turned to have a look. Jon saw spearwives too, their long hair streaming in the piney wind that sighed between the trees.  There were no true hills here, but Mance Rayder’s white fur tent had been raised on a spot of high stony ground right on the edge of the trees. The King-beyond-the-Wall was waiting outside, his ragged red-and-black cloak blowing in the wind. Harma Dogshead was with him, Jon saw, back from her raids and feints along the Wall, and Varamyr Sixskins as well, attended by his shadowcat and two lean grey wolves.  When they saw who the Watch had sent, Harma turned her head and spat, and one of Varamyr’s wolves bared its teeth and growled. “You must be very brave or very stupid, Jon Snow,” Mance Rayder said, “to come back to us wearing a black cloak.”  “What else would a man of the Night’s Watch wear?”  “Kill him,” urged Harma. “Send his body back up in that cage o’ theirs and tell them to send us someone else. I’ll keep his head for my standard. A turncloak’s worse than a dog.”  “I warned you he was false.” Varamyr’s tone was mild, but his shadowcat was staring at Jon hungrily through slitted grey eyes. “I never did like the smell o’ him.”  “Pull in your claws, beastling.” Tormund Giantsbane swung down off his horse. “The lad’s here to hear. You lay a paw on him, might be I’ll take me that shadowskin cloak I been wanting.”  “Tormund Crowlover,” Harma sneered. “You are a great sack o’wind, old man.”  The skinchanger was grey-faced, round-shouldered, and bald, a mouse of a man with a wolfling’s eyes. “Once a horse is broken to the saddle, any man can mount him,” he said in a soft voice. “Once a beast’s been joined to a man, any skinchanger can slip inside and ride him. Orell was withering inside his feathers, so I took the eagle for my own. But the joining works both ways, warg. Orell lives inside me now, whispering how much he hates you. And I can soar above the Wall, and see with eagle eyes.”  “So we know,” said Mance. “We know how few you were, when you stopped the turtle. We know how many came from Eastwatch. We know how your supplies have dwindled. Pitch, oil, arrows, spears. Even your stair is gone, and that cage can only lift so many. We know. And now you know we know.” He opened the flap of the tent. “Come inside. The rest of you, wait here.”  “What, even me?” said Tormund.  “Particularly you. Always.”  It was warm within. A small fire burned beneath the smoke holes, and a brazier smouldered near the pile of furs where Dalla lay, pale and sweating. Her sister was holding her hand. Val, Jon remembered. “I was sorry when Jarl fell,” he told her.  Val looked at him with pale grey eyes. “He always climbed too fast.” She was as fair as he’d remembered, slender, full-breasted, graceful even at rest, with high sharp cheekbones and a thick braid of honey-colored hair that fell to her waist.  “Dalla’s time is near,” Mance explained. “She and Val will stay. They know what I mean to say.”  Jon kept his face as still as ice. Foul enough to slay a man in his own tent under truce. Must I murder him in front of his wife as their child is being born? He closed the fingers of his sword hand. Mance was not wearing armor, but his own sword was sheathed on his left hip. And there were other weapons in the tent, daggers and dirks, a bow and a quiver of arrows, a bronze-headed spear lying beside that big black...horn.  Jon sucked in his breath.  A warhorn, a bloody great warhorn.  “Yes,” Mance said. “The Horn of Winter, that Joramun once blew to wake giants from the earth.”  The horn was huge, eight feet along the curve and so wide at the mouth that he could have put his arm inside up to the elbow. If this came from an aurochs, it was the biggest that ever lived. At first he thought the bands around it were bronze, but when he moved closer he realized they were gold. Old gold, more brown than yellow, and graven with runes.  “Ygritte said you never found the horn.”  “Did you think only crows could lie? I liked you well enough, for a bastard... but I never trusted you. A man needs to earn my trust.”  Jon faced him. “If you’ve had the Horn of Joramun all along, why haven’t you used it? Why bother building turtles and sending Therns to kill us in our beds? If this............
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