A Clash of Kings, Page 41George R. R. Martin
“They may not wish to. They are thousands, and we will be three hundred when the Halfhand reaches us.” Ser Mallador accepted a cup from Jon.
“If it comes to battle, we could not hope for better ground than here,” declared Mormont. “We’ll strengthen the defenses. Pits and spikes, caltrops scattered on the slopes, every breach mended. Jarman, I’ll want your sharpest eyes as watchers. A ring of them, all around us and along the river, to warn of any approach. Hide them up in trees. And we had best start bringing up water too, more than we need. We’ll dig cisterns. It will keep the men occupied, and may prove needful later.”
“My rangers—” started Thoren Smallwood.
“Your rangers will limit their ranging to this side of the river until the Halfhand reaches us. After that, we’ll see. I will not lose more of my men.”
“Mance Rayder might be massing his host a day’s ride from here, and we’d never know,” Smallwood complained.
“We know where the wildlings are massing,” Mormont came back. “We had it from Craster. I mislike the man, but I do not think he lied to us in this.”
“As you say.” Smallwood took a sullen leave. The others finished their wine and followed, more courteously.
“Shall I bring you supper, my lord?” Jon asked.
“Corn,” the raven cried. Mormont did not answer at once. When he did he said only, “Did your wolf find game today?”
“He’s not back yet.”
“We could do with fresh meat.” Mormont dug into a sack and offered his raven a handful of corn. “You think I’m wrong to keep the rangers close?”
“That’s not for me to say, my lord.”
“It is if you’re asked.”
“If the rangers must stay in sight of the Fist, I don’t see how they can hope to find my uncle,” Jon admitted.
“They can’t.” The raven pecked at the kernels in the Old Bear’s palm. “Two hundred men or ten thousand, the country is too vast.” The corn gone, Mormont turned his hand over.
“You would not give up the search?”
“Maester Aemon thinks you clever.” Mormont moved the raven to his shoulder. The bird tilted its head to one side, little eyes a-glitter.
The answer was there. “Is it… it seems to me that it might be easier for one man to find two hundred than for two hundred to find one.”
The raven gave a cackling scream, but the Old Bear smiled through the grey of his beard. “This many men and horses leave a trail even Aemon could follow. On this hill, our fires ought to be visible as far off as the foothills of the Frostfangs. If Ben Stark is alive and free, he will come to us, I have no doubt.”
“Yes,” said Jon, “but… what if…”
“… he’s dead?” Mormont asked, not unkindly.
Jon nodded, reluctantly.
“Dead,” the raven said. “Dead. Dead.”
“He may come to us anyway,” the Old Bear said. “As Othor did, and Jafer Flowers. I dread that as much as you, Jon, but we must admit the possibility.”
“Dead,” his raven cawed, ruffling its wings. Its voice grew louder and more shrill. “Dead.”
Mormont stroked the bird’s black feathers, and stifled a sudden yawn with the back of his hand. “I will forsake supper, I believe. Rest will serve me better. Wake me at first light.”
“Sleep well, my lord.” Jon gathered up the empty cups and stepped outside. He heard distant laughter, the plaintive sound of pipes. A great blaze was crackling in the center of the camp, and he could smell stew cooking. The Old Bear might not be hungry, but Jon was. He drifted over toward the fire.
Dywen was holding forth, spoon in hand. “I know this wood as well as any man alive, and I tell you, I wouldn’t care to ride through it alone tonight. Can’t you smell it?”
Grenn was staring at him with wide eyes, but Dolorous Edd said, “All I smell is the shit of two hundred horses. And this stew. Which has a similar aroma, now that I come to sniff it.”
“I’ve got your similar aroma right here.” Hake patted his dirk. Grumbling, he filled Jon’s bowl from the kettle.
The stew was thick with barley, carrot, and onion, with here and there a ragged shred of salt beef, softened in the cooking.
“What is it you smell, Dywen?” asked Grenn.
The forester sucked on his spoon a moment. He had taken out his teeth. His face was leathery and wrinkled, his hands gnarled as old roots. “Seems to me like it smells… well… cold.”
“Your head’s as wooden as your teeth,” Hake told him. “There’s no smell to cold.”
There is, thought Jon, remembering the night in the Lord Commander’s chambers. It smells like death. Suddenly he was not hungry anymore. He gave his stew to Grenn, who looked in need of an extra supper to warm him against the night.
The wind was blowing briskly when he left. By morning, frost would cover the ground, and the tent ropes would be stiff and frozen. A few fingers of spiced wine sloshed in the bottom of the kettle. Jon fed fresh wood to the fire and put the kettle over the flames to reheat. He flexed his fingers as he waited, squeezing and spreading until the hand tingled. The first watch had taken up their stations around the perimeter of the camp. Torches flickered all along the ringwall. The night was moonless, but a thousand stars shone overhead.
A sound rose out of the darkness, faint and distant, but unmistakable: the howling of wolves. Their voices rose and fell, a chilly song, and lonely. It made the hairs rise along the back of his neck. Across the fire, a pair of red eyes regarded him from the shadows. The light of the flames made them glow.
“Ghost,” Jon breathed, surprised. “So you came inside after all, eh?” The white wolf often hunted all night; he had not expected to see him again till daybreak. “Was the hunting so bad?” he asked. “Here. To me, Ghost.”
The direwolf circled the fire, sniffing Jon, sniffing the wind, never still. It did not seem as if he were after meat right now. When the dead came walking, Ghost knew. He woke me, warned me. Alarmed, he got to his feet. “Is something out there? Ghost, do you have a scent?” Dywen said he smelled cold.
The direwolf loped off, stopped, looked back. He wants me to follow. Pulling up the hood of his cloak, Jon walked away from the tents, away from the warmth of his fire, past the lines of shaggy little garrons. One of the horses whickered nervously when Ghost padded by. Jon soothed him with a word and paused to stroke his muzzle. He could hear the wind whistling through cracks in the rocks as they neared the ringwall. A voice called out a challenge. Jon stepped into the torchlight. “I need to fetch water for the Lord Commander.”
“Go on, then,” the guard said. “Be quick about it.” Huddled beneath his black cloak, with his hood drawn up against the wind, the man never even looked to see if he had a bucket.
Jon slipped sideways between two sharpened stakes while Ghost slid beneath them. A torch had been thrust down into a crevice, its flames flying pale orange banners when the gusts came. He snatched it up as he squeezed through the gap between the stones. Ghost went racing down the hill. Jon followed more slowly, the torch thrust out before him as he made his descent. The camp sounds faded behind him. The night was black, the slope steep, stony, and uneven. A moment’s inattention would be a sure way to break an ankle… or his neck. What am I doing? he asked himself as he picked his way down.
The trees stood beneath him, warriors armored in bark and leaf, deployed in their silent ranks awaiting the command to storm the hill. Black, they seemed… it was only when his torchlight brushed against them that Jon glimpsed a flash of green. Faintly, he heard the sound of water flowing over rocks. Ghost vanished in the underbrush. Jon struggled after him, listening to the call of the brook, to the leaves sighing in the wind. Branches clutched at his cloak, while overhead thick limbs twined together and shut out the stars.
He found Ghost lapping from the stream. “Ghost,” he called, “to me. Now.” When the direwolf raised his head, his eyes glowed red and baleful, and water streamed down from his jaws like slaver. Ther
e was something fierce and terrible about him in that instant. And then he was off, bounding past Jon, racing through the trees. “Ghost, no, stay,” he shouted, but the wolf paid no heed. The lean white shape was swallowed by the dark, and Jon had only two choices — to climb the hill again, alone, or to follow.
He followed, angry, holding the torch out low so he could see the rocks that threatened to trip him with every step, the thick roots that seemed to grab at his feet, the holes where a man could twist an ankle. Every few feet he called again for Ghost, but the night wind was swirling amongst the trees and it drank the words. This is madness, he thought as he plunged deeper into the trees. He was about to turn back when he glimpsed a flash of white off ahead and to the right, back toward the hill. He jogged after it, cursing under his breath.
A quarter way around the Fist he chased the wolf before he lost him again. Finally he stopped to catch his breath amidst the scrub, thorns, and tumbled rocks at the base of the hill. Beyond the torchlight, the dark pressed close.
A soft scrabbling noise made him turn. Jon moved toward the sound, stepping carefully among boulders and thornbushes. Behind a fallen tree, he came on Ghost again. The direwolf was digging furiously, kicking up dirt.
“What have you found?” Jon lowered the torch, revealing a rounded mound of soft earth. A grave, he thought. But whose?
He knelt, jammed the torch into the ground beside him. The soil was loose, sandy. Jon pulled it out by the fistful. There were no stones, no roots. Whatever was here had been put here recently. Two feet down, his fingers touched cloth. He had been expecting a corpse, fearing a corpse, but this was something else. He pushed against the fabric and felt small, hard shapes beneath, unyielding. There was no smell, no sign of graveworms. Ghost backed off and sat on his haunches, watching.
Jon brushed the loose soil away to reveal a rounded bundle perhaps two feet across. He jammed his fingers down around the edges and worked it loose. When he pulled it free, whatever was inside shifted and clinked. Treasure, he thought, but the shapes were wrong to be coins, and the sound was wrong for metal.
A length of frayed rope bound the bundle together. Jon unsheathed his dagger and cut it, groped for the edges of the cloth, and pulled. The bundle turned, and its contents spilled out onto the ground, glittering dark and bright. He saw a dozen knives, leaf-shaped spearheads, numerous arrowheads. Jon picked up a dagger blade, featherlight and shiny black, hiltless. Torchlight ran along its edge, a thin orange line that spoke of razor sharpness. Dragonglass. What the maesters call obsidian. Had Ghost uncovered some ancient cache of the children of the forest, buried here for thousands of years? The Fist of the First Men was an old place, only…
Beneath the dragonglass was an old warhorn, made from an auroch’s horn and banded in bronze. Jon shook the dirt from inside it, and a stream of arrowheads fell out. He let them fall, and pulled up a corner of the cloth the weapons had been wrapped in, rubbing it between his fingers. Good wool, thick, a double weave, damp but not rotted. It could not have been long in the ground. And it was dark. He seized a handful and pulled it close to the torch. Not dark. Black.
Even before Jon stood and shook it out, he knew what he had: the black cloak of a Sworn Brother of the Night’s Watch.
Alebelly found him in the forge, working the bellows for Mikken. “Maester wants you in the turret, m’lord prince. There’s been a bird from the king.”
“From Robb?” Excited, Bran did not wait for Hodor, but let Alebelly carry him up the steps. He was a big man, though not so big as Hodor and nowhere near as strong. By the time they reached the maester’s turret he was red-faced and puffing. Rickon was there before them, and both Walder Freys as well.
Maester Luwin sent Alebelly away and closed his door. “My lords,” he said gravely, “we have had a message from His Grace, with both good news and ill. He has won a great victory in the west, shattering a Lannister army at a place named Oxcross, and has taken several castles as well. He writes us from Ashemark, formerly the stronghold of House Marbrand.”
Rickon tugged at the maester’s robe. “Is Robb coming home?”
“Not just yet, I fear. There are battles yet to fight.”
“Was it Lord Tywin he defeated?” asked Bran.
“No,” said the maester. “Ser Stafford Lannister commanded the enemy host. He was slain in the battle.”
Bran had never even heard of Ser Stafford Lannister. He found himself agreeing with Big Walder when he said, “Lord Tywin is the only one who matters.”
“Tell Robb I want him to come home,” said Rickon. “He can bring his wolf home too, and Mother and Father.” Though he knew Lord Eddard was dead, sometimes Rickon forgot… willfully, Bran suspected. His little brother was stubborn as only a boy of four can be.
Bran was glad for Robb’s victory, but disquieted as well. He remembered what Osha had said the day that his brother had led his army out of Winterfell. He’s marching the wrong way, the wildling woman had insisted.
“Sadly, no victory is without cost.” Maester Luwin turned to the Walders. “My lords, your uncle Ser Stevron Frey was among those who lost their lives at Oxcross. He took a wound in the battle, Robb writes. It was not thought to be serious, but three days later he died in his tent, asleep.”
Big Walder shrugged. “He was very old. Five-and-sixty, I think. Too old for battles. He was always saying he was tired.”
Little Walder hooted. “Tired of waiting for our grandfather to die, you mean. Does this mean Ser Emmon’s the heir now?”
“Don’t be stupid,” his cousin said. “The sons of the first son come before the second son. Ser Ryman is next in line, and then Edwyn and Black Walder and Petyr Pimple. And then Aegon and all his sons.”
“Ryman is old too,” said Little Walder. “Past forty, I bet. And he has a bad belly. Do you think he’ll be lord?”
“I’ll be lord. I don’t care if he is.”
Maester Luwin cut in sharply. “You ought to be ashamed of such talk, my lords. Where is your grief? Your uncle is dead.”
“Yes,” said Little Walder. “We’re very sad.”
They weren’t, though. Bran got a sick feeling in his belly. They like the taste of this dish better than I do. He asked Maester Luwin to be excused.
“Very well.” The maester rang for help. Hodor must have been busy in the stables. It was Osha who came. She was stronger than Alebelly, though, and had no trouble lifting Bran in her arms and carrying him down the steps.
“Osha,” Bran asked as they crossed the yard. “Do you know the way north? To the Wall and… and even past?”
“The way’s easy. Look for the Ice Dragon, and chase the blue star in the rider’s eye.” She backed through a door and started up the winding steps.
“And there are still giants there, and… the rest… the Others, and the children of the forest too?”
“The giants I’ve seen, the children I’ve heard tell of, and the white walkers… why do you want to know?”
“Did you ever see a three-eyed crow?”
“No.” She laughed. “And I can’t say I’d want to.” Osha kicked open the door to his bedchamber and set him in his window seat, where he could watch the yard below.
It seemed only a few heartbeats after she took her leave that the door opened again, and Jojen Reed entered unbidden, with his sister Meera behind him. “You heard about the bird?” Bran asked. The other boy nodded. “It wasn’t a supper like you said. It was a letter from Robb, and we didn’t eat it, but—”
“The green dreams take strange shapes sometimes,” Jojen admitted. “The truth of them is not always easy to understand.”
“Tell me the bad thing you dreamed,” Bran said. “The bad thing that is coming to Winterfell.”
“Does my lord prince believe me now? Will he trust my words, no matter how queer they sound in his ears?”
“It is the sea that comes.”
med that the sea was lapping all around Winterfell. I saw black waves crashing against the gates and towers, and then the salt water came flowing over the walls and filled the castle. Drowned men were floating in the yard. When I first dreamed the dream, back at Greywater, I didn’t know their faces, but now I do. That Alebelly is one, the guard who called our names at the feast. Your septon’s another. Your smith as well.”
“Mikken?” Bran was as confused as he was dismayed. “But the sea is hundreds and hundreds of leagues away, and Winterfell’s walls are so high the water couldn’t get in even if it did come.”
“In the dark of night the salt sea will flow over these walls,” said Jojen. “I saw the dead, bloated and drowned.”
“We have to tell them,” Bran said. “Alebelly and Mikken, and Septon Chayle. Tell them not to drown.”
“It will not save them,” replied the boy in green.
Meera came to the window seat and put a hand on his shoulder. “They will not believe, Bran. No more than you did.”
Jojen sat on Bran’s bed. “Tell me what you dream.”
He was scared, even then, but he had sworn to trust them, and a Stark of Winterfell keeps his sworn word. “There’s different kinds,” he said slowly. “There’s the wolf dreams, those aren’t so bad as the others. I run and hunt and kill squirrels. And there’s dreams where the crow comes and tells me to fly. Sometimes the tree is in those dreams too, calling my name. That frightens me. But the worst dreams are when I fall.” He looked down into the yard, feeling miserable. “I never used to fall before. When I climbed. I went everyplace, up on the roofs and along the walls, I used to feed the crows in the Burned Tower. Mother was afraid that I would fall but I knew I never would. Only I did, and now when I sleep I fall all the time.”
Meera gave his shoulder a squeeze. “Is that all?”
“Warg,” said Jojen Reed.
Bran looked at him, his eyes wide. “What?”
“Warg. Shapechanger. Beastling. That is what they will call you, if they should ever hear of your wolf dreams.”
The names made him afraid again. “Who will call me?”
“Your own folk. In fear. Some will hate you if they know what you are. Some will even try to kill you.”
Old Nan told scary stories of beastlings and shapechangers sometimes. In the stories they were always evil. “I’m not like that,” Bran said. “I’m not. It’s only dreams.”
“The wolf dreams are no true dreams. You have your eye closed tight whenever you’re awake, but as you drift off it flutters open and your soul seeks out its other half. The power is strong in you.”
“I don’t want it. I want to be a knight.”
“A knight is what you want. A warg is what you are. You can’t change that, Bran, you can’t deny it or push it away. You are the winged wolf, but you will never fly.” Jojen got up and walked to the window. “Unless you open your eye.” He put two fingers together and poked Bran in the forehead, hard.
When he raised his hand to the spot, Bran felt only the smooth unbroken skin. There was no eye, not even a closed one. “How can I open it if it’s not there?”
“You will never find the eye with your fingers, Bran. You must search with your heart.” Jojen studied Bran’s face with those strange green eyes. “Or are you afraid?”
“Maester Luwin says there’s nothing in dreams that a man need fear.”
“There is,” said Jojen.
“The past. The future. The truth.”
They left him more muddled than ever. When he was alone, Bran tried to open his third eye, but he didn’t know how. No matter how he wrinkled his forehead and poked at it, he couldn’t see any different than he’d done before. In the days that followed, he tried to warn others about what Jojen had seen, but it didn’t go as he wanted. Mikken thought it was funny. “The sea, is it? Happens I always wanted to see the sea. Never got where I could go to it, though. So now it’s coming to me, is it? The gods are good, to take such trouble for a poor smith.”
“The gods will take me when they see fit,” Septon Chayle said quietly, “though I scarcely think it likely that I’ll drown, Bran. I grew up on the banks of the White Knife, you know. I’m quite the strong swimmer.”
Alebelly was the only one who paid the warning any heed. He went to talk to Jojen himself, and afterward stopped bathing and refused to go near the well. Finally he stank so bad that six of the other guards threw him into a tub of scalding water and scrubbed him raw while he screamed that they were going to drown him like the frogboy had said. Thereafter he scowled whenever he saw Bran or Jojen about the castle, and muttered under his breath.
It was a few days after Alebelly’s bath that Ser Rodrik returned to Winterfell with his prisoner, a fleshy young man with fat moist lips and long hair who smelled like a privy, even worse than Alebelly had. “Reek, he’s called,” Hayhead said when Bran asked who it was. “I never heard his true name. He served the Bastard of Bolton and helped him murder Lady Hornwood, they say.”
The Bastard himself was dead, Bran learned that evening over supper. Ser Rodrik’s men had caught him on Hornwood land doing something horrible (Bran wasn’t quite sure what, but it seemed to be something you did without your clothes) and shot him down with arrows as he tried to ride away. They came too late for poor Lady Hornwood, though. After their wedding, the Bastard had locked her in a tower and neglected to feed her. Bran had heard men saying that when Ser Rodrik had smashed down the door he found her with her mouth all bloody and her fingers chewed off.
“The monster has tied us a thorny knot,” the old knight told Maester Luwin. “Like it or no, Lady Hornwood was his wife. He made her say the vows before both