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A Clash of Kings, Page 17

George R. R. Martin


  with their scant possessions and whatever animals they may have had. None of the villages showed any signs of having been attacked. They were simply… empty. “What do you think happened to them all?” Jon asked.

  “Something worse than we can imagine,” suggested Dolorous Edd. “Well, I might be able to imagine it, but I’d sooner not. Bad enough to know you’re going to come to some awful end without thinking about it aforetime.”

  Two of the hounds were sniffing around the door as they reemerged. Other dogs ranged through the village. Chett was cursing them loudly, his voice thick with the anger he never seemed to put aside. The light filtering through the red leaves of the weirwood made the boils on his face look even more inflamed than usual. When he saw Jon his eyes narrowed; there was no love lost between them.

  The other houses had yielded no wisdom. “Gone,” cried Mormont’s raven, flapping up into the weirwood to perch above them. “Gone, gone, gone.”

  “There were wildlings at Whitetree only a year ago.” Thoren Smallwood looked more a lord than Mormont did, clad in Ser Jaremy Rykker’s gleaming black mail and embossed breastplate. His heavy cloak was richly trimmed with sable, and clasped with the crossed hammers of the Rykkers, wrought in silver. Ser Jaremy’s cloak, once… but the wight had claimed Ser Jaremy, and the Night’s Watch wasted nothing.

  “A year ago Robert was king, and the realm was at peace,” declared Jarman Buckwell, the square stolid man who commanded the scouts. “Much can change in a year’s time.”

  “One thing hasn’t changed,” Ser Mallador Locke insisted. “Fewer wildlings means fewer worries. I won’t mourn, whatever’s become of them. Raiders and murderers, the lot of them.”

  Jon heard a rustling from the red leaves above. Two branches parted, and he glimpsed a little man moving from limb to limb as easily as a squirrel. Bedwyck stood no more than five feet tall, but the grey streaks in his hair showed his age. The other rangers called him Giant. He sat in a fork of the tree over their heads and said, “There’s water to the north. A lake, might be. A few flint hills rising to the west, not very high. Nothing else to see, my lords.”

  “We might camp here tonight,” Smallwood suggested.

  The Old Bear glanced up, searching for a glimpse of sky through the pale limbs and red leaves of the weirwood. “No,” he declared. “Giant, how much daylight remains to us?”

  “Three hours, my lord.”

  “We’ll press on north,” Mormont decided. “If we reach this lake, we can make camp by the shore, perchance catch a few fish. Jon, fetch me paper, it’s past time I wrote Maester Aemon.”

  Jon found parchment, quill, and ink in his saddlebag and brought them to the Lord Commander. At Whitetree, Mormont scrawled. The fourth village. All empty. The wildlings are gone. “Find Tarly and see that he gets this on its way,” he said as he handed Jon the message. When he whistled, his raven came flapping down to land on his horse’s head. “Corn,” the raven suggested, bobbing. The horse whickered.

  Jon mounted his garron, wheeled him about, and trotted off. Beyond the shade of the great weirwood the men of the Night’s Watch stood beneath lesser trees, tending their horses, chewing strips of salt beef, pissing, scratching, and talking. When the command was given to move out again, the talk died, and they climbed back into their saddles. Jarman Buckwell’s scouts rode out first, with the vanguard under Thoren Smallwood heading the column proper. Then came the Old Bear with the main force, Ser Mallador Locke with the baggage train and packhorses, and finally Ser Ottyn Wythers and the rear guard. Two hundred men all told, with half again as many mounts.

  By day they followed game trails and streambeds, the “ranger’s roads” that led them ever deeper into the wilderness of leaf and root. At night they camped beneath a starry sky and gazed up at the comet. The black brothers had left Castle Black in good spirits, joking and trading tales, but of late the brooding silence of the wood seemed to have sombered them all. Jests had grown fewer and tempers shorter. No one would admit to being afraid — they were men of the Night’s Watch, after all — but Jon could feel the unease. Four empty villages, no wildlings anywhere, even the game seemingly fled. The haunted forest had never seemed more haunted, even veteran rangers agreed.

  As he rode, Jon peeled off his glove to air his burned fingers. Ugly things. He remembered suddenly how he used to muss Arya’s hair. His little stick of a sister. He wondered how she was faring. It made him a little sad to think that he might never muss her hair again. He began to flex his hand, opening and closing the fingers. If he let his sword hand stiffen and grow clumsy, it well might be the end of him, he knew. A man needed his sword beyond the Wall.

  Jon found Samwell Tarly with the other stewards, watering his horses. He had three to tend: his own mount, and two packhorses, each bearing a large wire-and-wicker cage full of ravens. The birds flapped their wings at Jon’s approach and screamed at him through the bars. A few shrieks sounded suspiciously like words. “Have you been teaching them to talk?” he asked Sam.

  “A few words. Three of them can say snow.”

  “One bird croaking my name was bad enough,” said Jon, “and snow’s nothing a black brother wants to hear about.” Snow often meant death in the north.

  “Was there anything in Whitetree?”

  “Bones, ashes, and empty houses.” Jon handed Sam the roll of parchment. “The Old Bear wants word sent back to Aemon.”

  Sam took a bird from one of the cages, stroked its feathers, attached the message, and said, “Fly home now, brave one. Home.” The raven quorked something unintelligible back at him, and Sam tossed it into the air. Flapping, it beat its way skyward through the trees. “I wish he could carry me with him.”

  “Still?”

  “Well,” said Sam, “yes, but… I’m not as frightened as I was, truly. The first night, every time I heard someone getting up to make water, I thought it was wildlings creeping in to slit my throat. I was afraid that if I closed my eyes, I might never open them again, only… well… dawn came after all.” He managed a wan smile. “I may be craven, but I’m not stupid. I’m sore and my back aches from riding and from sleeping on the ground, but I’m hardly scared at all. Look.” He held out a hand for Jon to see how steady it was. “I’ve been working on my maps.”

  The world is strange, Jon thought. Two hundred brave men had left the Wall, and the only one who was not growing more fearful was Sam, the self-confessed coward. “We’ll make a ranger of you yet,” he joked. “Next thing, you’ll want to be an outrider like Grenn. Shall I speak to the Old Bear?”

  “Don’t you dare!” Sam pulled up the hood of his enormous black cloak and clambered awkwardly back onto his horse. It was a plow horse, big and slow and clumsy, but better able to bear his weight than the little garrons the rangers rode. “I had hoped we might stay the night in the village,” he said wistfully. “It would be nice to sleep under a roof again.”

  “Too few roofs for all of us.” Jon mounted again, gave Sam a parting smile, and rode off. The column was well under way, so he swung wide around the village to avoid the worst of the congestion. He had seen enough of Whitetree.

  Ghost emerged from the undergrowth so suddenly that the garron shied and reared. The white wolf hunted well away from the line of march, but he was not having much better fortune than the foragers Smallwood sent out after game. The woods were as empty as the villages, Dywen had told him one night around the fire. “We’re a large party,” Jon had said. “The game’s probably been frightened away by all the noise we make on the march.”

  “Frightened away by something, no doubt,” Dywen said.

  Once the horse had settled, Ghost loped along easily beside him. Jon caught up to Mormont as he was wending his way around a hawthorn thicket. “Is the bird away?” the Old Bear asked.

  “Yes, my lord. Sam is teaching them to talk.”

  The Old Bear snorted. “He’ll regret that. Damned things make a lot of noise, but they never say a thing worth hearing.”

 
; They rode in silence, until Jon said, “If my uncle found all these villages empty as well—”

  “—he would have made it his purpose to learn why,” Lord Mormont finished for him, “and it may well be someone or something did not want that known. Well, we’ll be three hundred when Qhorin joins us. Whatever enemy waits out here will not find us so easy to deal with. We will find them, Jon, I promise you.”

  Or they will find us, thought Jon.

  ARYA

  The river was a blue-green ribbon shining in the morning sun. Reeds grew thick in the shallows along the banks, and Arya saw a water snake skimming across the surface, ripples spreading out behind it as it went. Overhead a hawk flew in lazy circles.

  It seemed a peaceful place… until Koss spotted the dead man. “There, in the reeds.” He pointed, and Arya saw it. The body of a soldier, shapeless and swollen. His sodden green cloak had hung up on a rotted log, and a school of tiny silver fishes were nibbling at his face. “I told you there was bodies,” Lommy announced. “I could taste them in that water.”

  When Yoren saw the corpse, he spat. “Dobber, see if he’s got anything worth the taking. Mail, knife, a bit o’ coin, what have you.” He spurred his gelding and rode out into the river, but the horse struggled in the soft mud and beyond the reeds the water deepened. Yoren rode back angry, his horse covered in brown slime up to the knees. “We won’t be crossing here. Koss, you’ll come with me upriver, look for a ford. Woth, Gerren, you go downstream. The rest o’ you wait here. Put a guard out.”

  Dobber found a leather purse in the dead man’s belt. Inside were four coppers and a little hank of blond hair tied up with a red ribbon. Lommy and Tarber stripped naked and went wading, and Lommy scooped up handfuls of slimy mud and threw them at Hot Pie, shouting, “Mud Pie! Mud Pie!” In the back of their wagon, Rorge cursed and threatened and told them to unchain him while Yoren was gone, but no one paid him any mind. Kurz caught a fish with his bare hands. Arya saw how he did it, standing over a shallow pool, calm as still water, his hand darting out quick as a snake when the fish swam near. It didn’t look as hard as catching cats. Fish didn’t have claws.

  It was midday when the others returned. Woth reported a wooden bridge half a mile downstream, but someone had burned it up. Yoren peeled a sourleaf off the bale. “Might be we could swim the horses over, maybe the donkeys, but there’s no way we’ll get those wagons across. And there’s smoke to the north and west, more fires, could be this side o’ the river’s the place we want to be.” He picked up a long stick and drew a circle in the mud, a line trailing down from it. “That’s Gods Eye, with the river flowing south. We’re here.” He poked a hole beside the line of the river, under the circle. “We can’t go round west of the lake, like I thought. East takes us back to the kingsroad.” He moved the stick up to where the line and circle met. “Near as I recall, there’s a town here. The holdfast’s stone, and there’s a lordling got his seat there too, just a towerhouse, but he’ll have a guard, might be a knight or two. We follow the river north, should be there before dark. They’ll have boats, so I mean to sell all we got and hire us one.” He drew the stick up through the circle of the lake, from bottom to top. “Gods be good, we’ll find a wind and sail across the Gods Eye to Harrentown.” He thrust the point down at the top of the circle. “We can buy new mounts there, or else take shelter at Harrenhal. That’s Lady Whent’s seat, and she’s always been a friend o’ the Watch.”

  Hot Pie’s eyes got wide. “There’s ghosts in Harrenhal…”

  Yoren spat. “There’s for your ghosts.” He tossed the stick down in the mud. “Mount up.”

  Arya was remembering the stories Old Nan used to tell of Harrenhal. Evil King Harren had walled himself up inside, so Aegon unleashed his dragons and turned the castle into a pyre. Nan said that fiery spirits still haunted the blackened towers. Sometimes men went to sleep safe in their beds and were found dead in the morning, all burnt up. Arya didn’t really believe that, and anyhow it had all happened a long time ago. Hot Pie was being silly; it wouldn’t be ghosts at Harrenhal, it would be knights. Arya could reveal herself to Lady Whent, and the knights would escort her home and keep her safe. That was what knights did; they kept you safe, especially women. Maybe Lady Whent would even help the crying girl.

  The river track was no kingsroad, yet it was not half bad for what it was, and for once the wagons rolled along smartly. They saw the first house an hour shy of evenfall, a snug little thatch-roofed cottage surrounded by fields of wheat. Yoren rode out ahead, hallooing, but got no answer. “Dead, might be. Or hiding. Dobber, Rey, with me.” The three men went into the cottage. “Pots is gone, no sign o’ any coin laid by,” Yoren muttered when they returned. “No animals. Run, most like. Might be we met ’em on the kingsroad.” At least the house and field had not been burned, and there were no corpses about. Tarber found a garden out back, and they pulled some onions and radishes and filled a sack with cabbages before they went on their way.

  A little farther up the road, they glimpsed a forester’s cabin surrounded by old trees and neatly stacked logs ready for the splitting, and later a ramshackle stilt-house leaning over the river on poles ten feet tall, both deserted. They passed more fields, wheat and corn and barley ripening in the sun, but here there were no men sitting in trees, nor walking the rows with scythes. Finally the town came into view; a cluster of white houses spread out around the walls of the holdfast, a big sept with a shingled wooden roof, the lord’s towerhouse sitting on a small rise to the west… and no sign of any people, anywhere.

  Yoren sat on his horse, frowning through his tangle of beard. “Don’t like it,” he said, “but there it is. We’ll go have us a look. A careful look. See maybe there’s some folk hiding. Might be they left a boat behind, or some weapons we can use.”

  The black brother left ten to guard the wagons and the whimpery little girl, and split the rest of them into four groups of five to search the town. “Keep your eyes and ears open,” he warned them, before he rode off to the towerhouse to see if there was any sign of the lordling or his guards.

  Arya found herself with Gendry, Hot Pie, and Lommy. Squat, kettle-bellied Woth had pulled an oar on a galley once, which made him the next best thing they had to a sailor, so Yoren told him to take them down to the lakefront and see if they could find a boat. As they rode between the silent white houses, gooseprickles crawled up Arya’s arms. This empty town frightened her almost as much as the burnt holdfast where they’d found the crying girl and the one-armed woman. Why would people run off and leave their homes and everything? What could scare them so much?

  The sun was low to the west, and the houses cast long dark shadows. A sudden clap of sound made Arya reach for Needle, but it was only a shutter banging in the wind. After the open river shore, the closeness of the town unnerved her.

  When she glimpsed the lake ahead between houses and trees, Arya put her knees into her horse, galloping past Woth and Gendry. She burst out onto the grassy sward beside the pebbled shore. The setting sun made the tranquil surface of the water shimmer like a sheet of beaten copper. It was the biggest lake she had ever seen, with no hint of a far shore. She saw a rambling inn to her left, built out over the water on heavy wooden pilings. To her right, a long pier jutted into the lake, and there were other docks farther east, wooden fingers reaching out from the town. But the only boat in view was an upside-down rowboat abandoned on the rocks beneath the inn, its bottom thoroughly rotted out. “They’re gone,” Arya said, dejected. What would they do now?

  “There’s an inn,” Lommy said, when the others rode up. “Do you think they left any food? Or ale?”

  “Let’s go see,” Hot Pie suggested.

  “Never you mind about no inn,” snapped Woth. “Yoren said we’re to find a boat.”

  “They took the boats.” Somehow Arya knew it was true; they could search the whole town, and they’d find no more than the upside-down rowboat. Despondent, she climbed off her horse and knelt by the lake. The water lapp
ed softly around her legs. A few lantern bugs were coming out, their little lights blinking on and off. The green water was warm as tears, but there was no salt in it. It tasted of summer and mud and growing things. Arya plunged her face down into it to wash off the dust and dirt and sweat of the day. When she leaned back the trickles ran down the back of her neck and under her collar. They felt good. She wished she could take off her clothes and swim, gliding through the warm water like a skinny pink otter. Maybe she could swim all the way to Winterfell.

  Woth was shouting at her to help search, so she did, peering into boathouses and sheds while her horse grazed along the shore. They found some sails, some nails, buckets of tar gone hard, and a mother cat with a litter of new-born kittens. But no boats.

  The town was as dark as any forest when Yoren and the others reappeared. “Tower’s empty,” he said. “Lord’s gone off to fight maybe, or to get his smallfolk to safety, no telling. Not a horse or pig left in town, but we’ll eat. Saw a goose running loose, and some chickens, and there’s good fish in the Gods Eye.”

  “The boats are gone,” Arya reported.

  “We could patch the bottom of that rowboat,” said Koss.

  “Might do for four o’ us,” Yoren said.

  “There’s nails,” Lommy pointed out. “And there’s trees all around. We could build us all boats.”

  Yoren spat. “You know anything ’bout boat-building, dyer’s boy?” Lommy looked blank.

  “A raft,” suggested Gendry. “Anyone can build a raft, and long poles for pushing.”

  Yoren looked thoughtful. “Lake’s too deep to pole across, but if we stayed to the shallows near shore… it’d mean leaving the wagons. Might be that’s best. I’ll sleep on it.”

  “Can we stay at the inn?” Lommy asked.

  “We’ll stay in the holdfast, with the gates barred,” the old man said. “I like the feel o’ stone walls about me when I sleep.”

  Arya could not keep quiet. “We shouldn’t stay here,” she blurted. “The people didn’t. They all ran off, even their lord.”

  “Arry’s scared,” Lommy announced, braying laughter.

  “I’m not,” she snapped back, “but they were.”

  “Smart boy,” said Yoren. “Thing is, the folks who lived here were at war, like it or no. We’re not. Night’s Watch takes no part, so no man’s our enemy.”

  And no man’s our friend, she thought, but this time she held her tongue. Lommy and the rest were looking at her, and she did not want to seem craven in front of them.

  The holdfast gates were studded with iron nails. Within, they found a pair of iron bars the size of saplings, with post holes in the ground and metal brackets on the gate. When they slotted the bars through the brackets, they made a huge X brace. It was no Red Keep, Yoren announced when they’d explored the holdfast top to bottom, but it was better than most, and should do for a night well enough. The walls were rough unmortared stone ten feet high, with a wooden catwalk inside the battlements. There was a postern gate to the north, and Gerren discovered a trap under the straw in the old wooden barn, leading to a narrow, winding tunnel. He followed it a long way under the earth and came out by the lake. Yoren had them roll a wagon on top of the trap, to make certain no one came in that way. He divided them into three watches, and sent Tarber, Kurz, and Cutjack off to the abandoned towerhouse to keep an eye out from on high. Kurz had a hunting horn to sound if danger threatened.

  They drove their wagons and animals inside and barred the gates behind them. The barn was a ramshackle thing, large enough to hold half the animals in the town. The haven, where the townfolk would shelter in times of trouble, was even larger, low and long and built of stone, with a thatched roof. Koss went out the postern gate and brought the goose back, and two chickens as well, and Yoren allowed a cookfire. There was a big kitchen inside the holdfast, though all the pots and kettles had been taken. Gendry, Dobber, and Arya drew cook duty. Dobber told Arya to pluck the fowl while Gendry split wood. “Why can’t I split the wood?” she asked, but no one listened. Sullenly, she set to plucking a chicken while Yoren sat on the end of the bench sharpening the edge of his dirk with a whetstone.

  When the food was ready, Arya ate a chicken leg and a bit of onion. No one talked much, not even Lommy. Gendry went off by himself afterward, polishing his helm with a look on his face like he wasn’t even there. The crying girl whimpered and wept, but when Hot Pie offered her a bit of goose she gobbled it down and looked for more.

  Arya drew second watch, so she found a straw pallet in the haven. Sleep did not come easy, so she borrowed Yoren’s stone and set to honing Needle. Syrio Forel had said that a dull blade was like a lame horse. Hot Pie squatted on the pallet beside her, watching her work. “Where’d you get a good sword like that?” he asked. When he saw the look she gave him, he raised his hands defensively. “I never said you stole it, I just wanted to know where you got it, is all.”

  “My brother gave it to me,” she muttered.

  “I never knew you had no brother.”

  Arya paused to scratch under her shirt. There were fleas in the straw, though she couldn’t see why a few more would bother her. “I have lots of brothers.”

  “You do? Are they bigger than you, or littler?”

  I shouldn’t be talking like this. Yoren said I should keep my mouth shut. “Bigger,” she lied. “They have swords too, big longswords, and they showed me how to kill people who bother me.”

  “I was talking, not bothering.” Hot Pie went off and let her alone and Arya curled up on her pallet. She could hear the crying girl from the far side of the haven. I wish she’d just be quiet. Why does she have to cry all the time?

  She must have slept, though she never remembered closing her eyes. She dreamed a wolf was howling, and the sound was so terrible that it woke her at once. Arya sat up on her pallet with her heart thumping. “Hot Pie, wake up.” She scrambled to her feet. “Woth, Gendry, didn’t you hear?” She pulled on a boot.

  All around her, men and boys stirred and crawled from their pallets. “What’s wrong?” Hot Pie asked. “Hear what?” Gendry wanted to know. “Arry had a bad dream,” someone else said.

  “No, I heard it,” she insisted. “A wolf.”

  “Arry has wolves in his head,” sneered Lommy. “Let them howl,” Gerren said, “they’re out there, we’re in here.” Woth agreed. “Never saw no wolf could storm a holdfast.” Hot Pie was saying, “I never heard nothing.”

  “It was a wolf,” she shouted at them as she yanked on her second boot. “Something’s wrong, someone’s coming, get up!”

  Before they could hoot her down again, the sound came shuddering through the night — only it was no wolf this time, it was Kurz blowing his hunting horn, sounding danger. In a heartbeat, all of them were pulling on clothes and snatching for whatever weapons they owned. Arya ran for the gate as the horn sounded again. As she dashed past the barn, Biter threw himself furiously against his chains, and Jaqen H’ghar called out from the back of their wagon. “Boy! Sweet boy! Is it war, red war? Boy, free us. A man can fight. Boy!” She ignored him and plunged on. By then she could hear horses and shouts beyond the wall.

  She scrambled up onto the catwalk. The parapets were a bit too high and Arya a bit too short; she had to wedge her toes into the holes between the stones to see over. For a moment she thought the town was full of lantern bugs. Then she realized they were men with torches, galloping between the houses. She saw a roof go up, flames licking at the belly of the night with hot orange tongues as the thatch caught. Another followed, and then another, and soon there were fires blazing everywhere.

  Gendry climbed up beside her, wearing his helm. “How many?”

  Arya tried to count, but they were riding too fast, torches spinning through the air as they flung them. “A hundred,” she said. “Two hundred, I don’t know.” Over the roar of the flames, she could hear shouts. “They’ll come for us soon.”

  “There,” Gendry said, pointing.

  A column
of riders moved between the burning buildings toward the holdfast.