A clash of kings, p.29
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       A Clash of Kings, p.29

         Part #2 of A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin
 

  pig or two skulked among the benches, while women in ragged deerskins passed horns of beer, stirred the fire, and chopped carrots and onions into a kettle.

  “He ought to have passed here last year,” said Thoren Smallwood. A dog came sniffing round his leg. He kicked it and sent it off yipping.

  Lord Mormont said, “Ben was searching for Ser Waymar Royce, who’d vanished with Gared and young Will.”

  “Aye, those three I recall. The lordling no older than one of these pups. Too proud to sleep under my roof, him in his sable cloak and black steel. My wives give him big cow eyes all the same.” He turned his squint on the nearest of the women. “Gared says they were chasing raiders. I told him, with a commander that green, best not catch ’em. Gared wasn’t half-bad, for a crow. Had less ears than me, that one. The ’bite took ’em, same as mine.” Craster laughed. “Now I hear he got no head neither. The ’bite do that too?”

  Jon remembered a spray of red blood on white snow, and the way Theon Greyjoy had kicked the dead man’s head. The man was a deserter. On the way back to Winterfell, Jon and Robb had raced, and found six direwolf pups in the snow. A thousand years ago.

  “When Ser Waymar left you, where was he bound?”

  Craster gave a shrug. “Happens I have better things to do than tend to the comings and goings of crows.” He drank a pull of beer and set the cup aside. “Had no good southron wine up here for a bear’s night. I could use me some wine, and a new axe. Mine’s lost its bite, can’t have that, I got me women to protect.” He gazed around at his scurrying wives.

  “You are few here, and isolated,” Mormont said. “If you like, I’ll detail some men to escort you south to the Wall.”

  The raven seemed to like the notion. “Wall,” it screamed, spreading black wings like a high collar behind Mormont’s head.

  Their host gave a nasty smile, showing a mouthful of broken brown teeth. “And what would we do there, serve you at supper? We’re free folk here. Craster serves no man.”

  “These are bad times to dwell alone in the wild. The cold winds are rising.”

  “Let them rise. My roots are sunk deep.” Craster grabbed a passing woman by the wrist. “Tell him, wife. Tell the Lord Crow how well content we are.”

  The woman licked at thin lips. “This is our place. Craster keeps us safe. Better to die free than live a slave.”

  “Slave,” muttered the raven.

  Mormont leaned forward. “Every village we have passed has been abandoned. Yours are the first living faces we’ve seen since we left the Wall. The people are gone… whether dead, fled, or taken, I could not say. The animals as well. Nothing is left. And earlier, we found the bodies of two of Ben Stark’s rangers only a few leagues from the Wall. They were pale and cold, with black hands and black feet and wounds that did not bleed. Yet when we took them back to Castle Black they rose in the night and killed. One slew Ser Jaremy Rykker and the other came for me, which tells me that they remember some of what they knew when they lived, but there was no human mercy left in them.”

  The woman’s mouth hung open, a wet pink cave, but Craster only gave a snort. “We’ve had no such troubles here… and I’ll thank you not to tell such evil tales under my roof. I’m a godly man, and the gods keep me safe. If wights come walking, I’ll know how to send them back to their graves. Though I could use me a sharp new axe.” He sent his wife scurrying with a slap on her leg and a shout of “More beer, and be quick about it.”

  “No trouble from the dead,” Jarmen Buckwell said, “but what of the living, my lord? What of your king?”

  “King!” cried Mormont’s raven. “King, king, king.”

  “That Mance Rayder?” Craster spit into the fire. “King-beyond-the-Wall. What do free folk want with kings?” He turned his squint on Mormont. “There’s much I could tell you o’ Rayder and his doings, if I had a mind. This o’ the empty villages, that’s his work. You would have found this hall abandoned as well, if I were a man to scrape to such. He sends a rider, tells me I must leave my own keep to come grovel at his feet. I sent the man back, but kept his tongue. It’s nailed to that wall there.” He pointed. “Might be that I could tell you where to seek Mance Rayder. If I had a mind.” The brown smile again. “But we’ll have time enough for that. You’ll be wanting to sleep beneath my roof, belike, and eat me out of pigs.”

  “A roof would be most welcome, my lord,” Mormont said. “We’ve had hard riding, and too much wet.”

  “Then you’ll guest here for a night. No longer, I’m not that fond o’ crows. The loft’s for me and mine, but you’ll have all the floor you like. I’ve meat and beer for twenty, no more. The rest o’ your black crows can peck after their own corn.”

  “We’ve packed in our own supplies, my lord,” said the Old Bear. “We should be pleased to share our food and wine.”

  Craster wiped his drooping mouth with the back of a hairy hand. “I’ll taste your wine, Lord Crow, that I will. One more thing. Any man lays a hand on my wives, he loses the hand.”

  “Your roof, your rule,” said Thoren Smallwood, and Lord Mormont nodded stiffly, though he looked none too pleased.

  “That’s settled, then.” Craster grudged them a grunt. “D’ya have a man can draw a map?”

  “Sam Tarly can.” Jon pushed forward. “Sam loves maps.”

  Mormont beckoned him closer. “Send him here after he’s eaten. Have him bring quill and parchment. And find Tollett as well. Tell him to bring my axe. A guest gift for our host.”

  “Who’s this one now?” Craster said before Jon could go. “He has the look of a Stark.”

  “My steward and squire, Jon Snow.”

  “A bastard, is it?” Craster looked Jon up and down. “Man wants to bed a woman, seems like he ought to take her to wife. That’s what I do.” He shooed Jon off with a wave. “Well, run and do your service, bastard, and see that axe is good and sharp now, I’ve no use for dull steel.”

  Jon Snow bowed stiffly and took his leave. Ser Ottyn Wythers was coming in as he was leaving, and they almost collided at the deerhide door. Outside, the rain seemed to have slackened. Tents had gone up all over the compound. Jon could see the tops of others under the trees.

  Dolorous Edd was feeding the horses. “Give the wildling an axe, why not?” He pointed out Mormont’s weapon, a short-hafted battle-axe with gold scrollwork inlaid on the black steel blade. “He’ll give it back, I vow. Buried in the Old Bear’s skull, like as not. Why not give him all our axes, and our swords as well? I mislike the way they clank and rattle as we ride. We’d travel faster without them, straight to hell’s door. Does it rain in hell, I wonder? Perhaps Craster would like a nice hat instead.”

  Jon smiled. “He wants an axe. And wine as well.”

  “See, the Old Bear’s clever. If we get the wildling well and truly drunk, perhaps he’ll only cut off an ear when he tries to slay us with that axe. I have two ears but only one head.”

  “Smallwood says Craster is a friend to the Watch.”

  “Do you know the difference between a wildling who’s a friend to the Watch and one who’s not?” asked the dour squire. “Our enemies leave our bodies for the crows and the wolves. Our friends bury us in secret graves. I wonder how long that bear’s been nailed up on that gate, and what Craster had there before we came hallooing?” Edd looked at the axe doubtfully, the rain running down his long face. “Is it dry in there?”

  “Drier than out here.”

  “If I lurk about after, not too close to the fire, belike they’ll take no note of me till morn. The ones under his roof will be the first he murders, but at least we’ll die dry.”

  Jon had to laugh. “Craster’s one man. We’re two hundred. I doubt he’ll murder anyone.”

  “You cheer me,” said Edd, sounding utterly morose. “And besides, there’s much to be said for a good sharp axe. I’d hate to be murdered with a maul. I saw a man hit in the brow with a maul once. Scarce split the skin at all, but his head turned mushy and swelled up big as a go
urd, only purply-red. A comely man, but he died ugly. It’s good that we’re not giving them mauls.” Edd walked away shaking his head, his sodden black cloak shedding rain behind him.

  Jon got the horses fed before he stopped to think of his own supper. He was wondering where to find Sam when he heard a shout of fear. “Wolf!” He sprinted around the hall toward the cry, the earth sucking at his boots. One of Craster’s women was backed up against the mud-spattered wall of the keep. “Keep away,” she was shouting at Ghost. “You keep away!” The direwolf had a rabbit in his mouth and another dead and bloody on the ground before him. “Get it away, m’lord,” she pleaded when she saw him.

  “He won’t hurt you.” He knew at once what had happened; a wooden hutch, its slats shattered, lay on its side in the wet grass. “He must have been hungry. We haven’t seen much game.” Jon whistled. The direwolf bolted down the rabbit, crunching the small bones between his teeth, and padded over to him.

  The woman regarded them with nervous eyes. She was younger than he’d thought at first. A girl of fifteen or sixteen years, he judged, dark hair plastered across a gaunt face by the falling rain, her bare feet muddy to the ankles. The body under the sewn skins was showing in the early turns of pregnancy. “Are you one of Craster’s daughters?” he asked.

  She put a hand over her belly. “Wife now.” Edging away from the wolf, she knelt mournfully beside the broken hutch. “I was going to breed them rabbits. There’s no sheep left.”

  “The Watch will make good for them.” Jon had no coin of his own, or he would have offered it to her… though he was not sure what good a few coppers or even a silver piece would do her beyond the Wall. “I’ll speak to Lord Mormont on the morrow.”

  She wiped her hands on her skirt. “M’lord—”

  “I’m no lord.”

  But others had come crowding round, drawn by the woman’s scream and the crash of the rabbit hutch. “Don’t you believe him, girl,” called out Lark the Sisterman, a ranger mean as a cur. “That’s Lord Snow himself.”

  “Bastard of Winterfell and brother to kings,” mocked Chett, who’d left his hounds to see what the commotion was about.

  “That wolf’s looking at you hungry, girl,” Lark said. “Might be it fancies that tender bit in your belly.”

  Jon was not amused. “You’re scaring her.”

  “Warning her, more like.” Chett’s grin was as ugly as the boils that covered most of his face.

  “We’re not to talk to you,” the girl remembered suddenly.

  “Wait,” Jon said, too late. She bolted, ran.

  Lark made a grab for the second rabbit, but Ghost was quicker. When he bared his teeth, the Sisterman slipped in the mud and went down on his bony butt. The others laughed. The direwolf took the rabbit in his mouth and brought it to Jon.

  “There was no call to scare the girl,” he told them.

  “We’ll hear no scolds from you, bastard.” Chett blamed Jon for the loss of his comfortable position with Maester Aemon, and not without justice. If he had not gone to Aemon about Sam Tarly, Chett would still be tending an old blind man instead of a pack of ill-tempered hunting hounds. “You may be the Lord Commander’s pet, but you’re not the Lord Commander… and you wouldn’t talk so bloody bold without that monster of yours always about.”

  “I’ll not fight a brother while we’re beyond the Wall,” Jon answered, his voice cooler than he felt.

  Lark got to one knee. “He’s afraid of you, Chett. On the Sisters, we have a name for them like him.”

  “I know all the names. Save your breath.” He walked away, Ghost at his side. The rain had dwindled to a thin drizzle by the time he reached the gate. Dusk would be on them soon, followed by another wet dark dismal night. The clouds would hide moon and stars and Mormont’s Torch, turning the woods black as pitch. Every piss would be an adventure, if not quite of the sort Jon Snow had once envisioned.

  Out under the trees, some rangers had found enough duff and dry wood to start a fire beneath a slanting ridge of slate. Others had raised tents or made rude shelters by stretching their cloaks over low branches. Giant had crammed himself inside the hollow of a dead oak. “How d’ye like my castle, Lord Snow?”

  “It looks snug. You know where Sam is?”

  “Keep on the way you were. If you come on Ser Ottyn’s pavilion, you’ve gone too far.” Giant smiled. “Unless Sam’s found him a tree too. What a tree that would be.”

  It was Ghost who found Sam in the end. The direwolf shot ahead like a quarrel from a crossbow. Under an outcrop of rock that gave some small degree of shelter from the rain, Sam was feeding the ravens. His boots squished when he moved. “My feet are soaked through,” he admitted miserably. “When I climbed off my horse, I stepped in a hole and went in up to my knees.”

  “Take off your boots and dry your stockings. I’ll find some dry wood. If the ground’s not wet under the rock, we might be able to get a fire burning.” Jon showed Sam the rabbit. “And we’ll feast.”

  “Won’t you be attending Lord Mormont in the hall?”

  “No, but you will. The Old Bear wants you to map for him. Craster says he’ll find Mance Rayder for us.”

  “Oh.” Sam did not look anxious to meet Craster, even if it meant a warm fire.

  “He said eat first, though. Dry your feet.” Jon went to gather fuel, digging down under deadfalls for the drier wood beneath and peeling back layers of sodden pine needles until he found likely kindling. Even then, it seemed to take forever for a spark to catch. He hung his cloak from the rock to keep the rain off his smoky little fire, making them a small snug alcove.

  As he knelt to skin the rabbit, Sam pulled off his boots. “I think there’s moss growing between my toes,” he declared mournfully, wriggling the toes in question. “The rabbit will taste good. I don’t even mind about the blood and all.” He looked away. “Well, only a little…”

  Jon spitted the carcass, banked the fire with a pair of rocks, and balanced their meal atop them. The rabbit had been a scrawny thing, but as it cooked it smelled like a king’s feast. Other rangers gave them envious looks. Even Ghost looked up hungrily, flames shining in his red eyes as he sniffed. “You had yours before,” Jon reminded him.

  “Is Craster as savage as the rangers say?” Sam asked. The rabbit was a shade underdone, but tasted wonderful. “What’s his castle like?”

  “A midden heap with a roof and a firepit.” Jon told Sam what he had seen and heard in Craster’s Keep.

  By the time the telling was done, it was dark outside and Sam was licking his fingers. “That was good, but now I’d like a leg of lamb. A whole leg, just for me, sauced with mint and honey and cloves. Did you see any lambs?”

  “There was a sheepfold, but no sheep.”

  “How does he feed all his men?”

  “I didn’t see any men. Just Craster and his women and a few small girls. I wonder he’s able to hold the place. His defenses were nothing to speak of, only a muddy dike. You had better go up to the hall and draw that map. Can you find the way?”

  “If I don’t fall in the mud.” Sam struggled back into his boots, collected quill and parchment, and shouldered out into the night, the rain pattering down on his cloak and floppy hat.

  Ghost laid his head on his paws and went to sleep by the fire. Jon stretched out beside him, grateful for the warmth. He was cold and wet, but not so cold and wet as he’d been a short time before. Perhaps tonight the Old Bear will learn something that will lead us to Uncle Benjen.

  He woke to the sight of his own breath misting in the cold morning air. When he moved, his bones ached. Ghost was gone, the fire burnt out. Jon reached to pull aside the cloak he’d hung over the rock, and found it stiff and frozen. He crept beneath it and stood up in a forest turned to crystal.

  The pale pink light of dawn sparkled on branch and leaf and stone. Every blade of grass was carved from emerald, every drip of water turned to diamond. Flowers and mushrooms alike wore coats of glass. Even the mud puddles had a bright
brown sheen. Through the shimmering greenery, the black tents of his brothers were encased in a fine glaze of ice.

  So there is magic beyond the Wall after all. He found himself thinking of his sisters, perhaps because he’d dreamed of them last night. Sansa would call this an enchantment, and tears would fill her eyes at the wonder of it, but Arya would run out laughing and shouting, wanting to touch it all.

  “Lord Snow?” he heard. Soft and meek. He turned.

  Crouched atop the rock that had sheltered him during the night was the rabbit keeper, wrapped in a black cloak so large it drowned her. Sam’s cloak, Jon realized at once. Why is she wearing Sam’s cloak? “The fat one told me I’d find you here, m’lord,” she said.

  “We ate the rabbit, if that’s what you came for.” The admission made him feel absurdly guilty.

  “Old Lord Crow, him with the talking bird, he gave Craster a crossbow worth a hundred rabbits.” Her arms closed over the swell of her belly. “Is it true, m’lord? Are you brother to a king?”

  “A half brother,” he admitted. “I’m Ned Stark’s bastard. My brother Robb is the King in the North. Why are you here?”

  “The fat one, that Sam, he said to see you. He give me his cloak, so no one would say I didn’t belong.”

  “Won’t Craster be angry with you?”

  “My father drank overmuch of the Lord Crow’s wine last night. He’ll sleep most of the day.” Her breath frosted the air in small nervous puffs. “They say the king gives justice and protects the weak.” She started to climb off the rock, awkwardly, but the ice had made it slippery and her foot went out from under her. Jon caught her before she could fall, and helped her safely down. The woman knelt on the icy ground. “M’lord, I beg you—”

  “Don’t beg me anything. Go back to your hall, you shouldn’t be here. We were commanded not to speak to Craster’s women.”

  “You don’t have to speak with me, m’lord. Just take me with you, when you go, that’s all I ask.”

  All she asks, he thought. As if that were nothing.

  “I’ll… I’ll be your wife, if you like. My father, he’s got nineteen now, one less won’t hurt him none.”

  “Black brothers are sworn never to take wives, don’t you know that? And we’re guests in your father’s hall besides.”

  “Not you,” she said. “I watched. You never ate at his board, nor slept by his fire. He never gave you guest-right, so you’re not bound to him. It’s for the baby I have to go.”

  “I don’t even know your name.”

  “Gilly, he called me. For the gillyflower.”

  “That’s pretty.” He remembered Sansa telling him once that he should say that whenever a lady told him her name. He could not help the girl, but perhaps the courtesy would please her. “Is it Craster who frightens you, Gilly?”

  “For the baby, not for me. If it’s a girl, that’s not so bad, she’ll grow a few years and he’ll marry her. But Nella says it’s to be a boy, and she’s had six and knows these things. He gives the boys to the gods. Come the white cold, he does, and of late it comes more often. That’s why he started giving them sheep, even though he has a taste for mutton. Only now the sheep’s gone too. Next it will be dogs, till…” She lowered her eyes and stroked her belly.

  “What gods?” Jon was remembering that they’d seen no boys in Craster’s Keep, nor men either, save Craster himself.

  “The cold gods,” she said. “The ones in the night. The white shadows.”

  And suddenly Jon was back in the Lord Commander’s Tower again. A severed hand was climbing his calf and when he pried it off with the point of his longsword, it lay writhing, fingers opening and closing. The dead man rose to his feet, blue eyes shining in that gashed and swollen face. Ropes of torn flesh hung from the great wound in his belly, yet there was no blood.

  “What color are their eyes?” he asked her.

  “Blue. As bright as blue stars, and as cold.”

  She has seen them, he thought. Craster lied.

  “Will you take me? Just so far as the Wall—”

  “We do not ride for the Wall. We ride north, after Mance Rayder and these Others, these white shadows and their wights. We seek them, Gilly. Your babe would not be safe with us.”

  Her fear was plain on her face. “You will come back, though. When your warring’s done, you’ll pass this way again.”

  “We may.” If any of us still live. “That’s for the Old Bear to say, the one you call the Lord Crow. I’m only his squire. I do not choose the road I ride.”

  “No.” He could hear the defeat in her voice. “Sorry to be of trouble, m’lord. I only… they said the king keeps people safe, and I thought…” Despairing, she ran, Sam’s cloak flapping behind her like great black wings.

  Jon watched her go, his joy in the morning’s brittle beauty gone. Damn her, he thought resentfully, and damn Sam twice for sending her to me. What did he think I could do for her? We’re here to fight wildlings, not save them.

  Other men were crawling from their shelters, yawning and stretching. The magic was already faded, icy brightness turning back to common dew in the light of the rising sun. Someone had gotten a fire started; he could smell woodsmoke drifting through the trees, and the smoky scent of bacon. Jon took down his cloak and snapped it against the rock, shattering the thin crust of ice that had formed in the night, then gathered up Longclaw and shrugged an arm through a shoulder strap. A few yards away he made water into a frozen bush, his piss steaming in the cold air and melting the ice wherever it fell. Afterward he laced up his black wool breeches and followed the smells.

  Grenn and Dywen were among the brothers who had gathered round the fire. Hake handed Jon a hollow heel of bread filled with burnt bacon and chunks of salt fish warmed in bacon grease. He wolfed it down while listening to Dywen boast of having three of Craster’s women during the night.

  “You did not,” Grenn said, scowling. “I would have seen.”

  Dywen whapped him up alongside his ear with the back of his hand. “You? Seen? You’re blind as Maester Aemon. You never even saw that bear.”

  “What bear? Was there a bear?”