A storm of swords, p.76
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       A Storm of Swords, p.76

         Part #3 of A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin

  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 some enormous worm, but you never saw all of it at once. But now…

  “Here they come,” someone said in a hoarse voice.

  Mammoths centered the wildling line, he saw, a hundred or more with giants on their backs clutching mauls and huge stone axes. More giants loped beside them, pushing along a tree trunk on great wooden wheels, its end sharpened to a point. A ram, he thought bleakly. If the gate still stood below, a few kisses from that thing would soon turn it into splinters. On either side of the giants came a wave of horsemen in boiled leather harness with fire-hardened lances, a mass of running archers, hundreds of foot with spears, slings, clubs, and leathern shields. The bone chariots from the Frozen Shore clattered forward on the flanks, bouncing over rocks and roots behind teams of huge white dogs. The fury of the wild, Jon thought as he listened to the skirl of skins, to the dogs barking and baying, the mammoths trumpeting, the free folk whistling and screaming, the giants roaring in the Old Tongue. Their drums echoed off the ice like rolling thunder.

  He could feel the despair all around him. “There must be a hundred thousand,” Satin wailed. “How can we stop so many?”

  “The Wall will stop them,” Jon heard himself say. He turned and said it again, louder. “The Wall will stop them. The Wall defends itself.” Hollow words, but he needed to say them, almost as much as his brothers needed to hear them. “Mance wants to unman us with his numbers. Does he think we’re stupid?” He was shouting now, his leg forgotten, and every man was listening. “The chariots, the horsemen, all those fools on foot… what are they going to do to us up here? Any of you ever see a mammoth climb a wall?” He laughed, and Pyp and Owen and half a dozen more laughed with him. “They’re nothing, they’re less use than our straw brothers here, they can’t reach us, they can’t hurt us, and they don’t frighten us, do they?”

  “NO!” Grenn shouted.

  “They’re down there and we’re up here,” Jon said, “and so long as we hold the gate they cannot pass. They cannot pass!” They were all shouting then, roaring his own words back at him, waving swords and longbows in the air as their cheeks flushed red. Jon saw Kegs standing there with a warhorn slung beneath his arm. “Brother,” he told him, “sound for battle.”

  Grinning, Kegs lifted the horn to his lips, and blew the two long blasts that meant wildlings. Other horns took up the call until the Wall itself seemed to shudder, and the echo of those great deep-throated moans drowned all other sound.

  “Archers,” Jon said when the horns had died away, “you’ll aim for the giants with that ram, every bloody one of you. Loose at my command, not before. THE GIANTS AND THE RAM. I want arrows raining on them with every step, but we’ll wait till they’re in range. Any man who wastes an arrow will need to climb down and fetch it back, do you hear me?”

  “I do,” shouted Owen the Oaf. “I hear you, Lord Snow.”

  Jon laughed, laughed like a drunk or a madman, and his men laughed with him. The chariots and the racing horsemen on the flanks were well ahead of the center now, he saw. The wildlings had not crossed a third of the half mile, yet their battle line was dissolving. “Load the trebuchet with caltrops,” Jon said. “Owen, Kegs, angle the catapults toward the center. Scorpions, load with fire spears and loose at my command.” He pointed at the Mole’s Town boys. “You, you, and you, stand by with torches.”

  The wildling archers shot as they advanced; they would dash forward, stop, loose, then run another ten yards. There were so many that the air was constantly full of arrows, all falling woefully short. A waste, Jon thought. Their want of discipline is showing. The smaller horn-and-wood bows of the free folk were outranged by the great yew longbows of the Night’s Watch, and the wildlings were trying to shoot at men seven hundred feet above them. “Let them shoot,” Jon said. “Wait. Hold.” Their cloaks were flapping behind them. “The wind is in our faces, it will cost us range. Wait.” Closer, closer. The sk
ins wailed, the drums thundered, the wildling arrows fluttered and fell.

  “DRAW.” Jon lifted his own bow and pulled the arrow to his ear. Satin did the same, and Grenn, Owen the Oaf, Spare Boot, Black Jack Bulwer, Arron and Emrick. Zei hoisted her crossbow to her shoulder. Jon was watching the ram come on and on, the mammoths and giants lumbering forward on either side. They were so small he could have crushed them all in one hand, it seemed. If only my hand was big enough. Through the killing ground they came. A hundred crows rose from the carcass of the dead mammoth as the wildlings thundered past to either side of them. Closer and closer, until…


  The black arrows hissed downward, like snakes on feathered wings. Jon did not wait to see where they struck. He reached for a second arrow as soon as the first left his bow. “NOTCH. DRAW. LOOSE.” As soon as the arrow flew he found another. “NOTCH. DRAW. LOOSE.” Again, and then again. Jon shouted for the trebuchet, and heard the creak and heavy thud as a hundred spiked steel caltrops went spinning through the air. “Catapults,” he called, “scorpions. Bowmen, loose at will.” Wildling arrows were striking the Wall now, a hundred feet below them. A second giant spun and staggered. Notch, draw, loose. A mammoth veered into another beside it, spilling giants on the ground. Notch, draw, loose. The ram was down and done, he saw, the giants who’d pushed it dead or dying. “Fire arrows,” he shouted. “I want that ram burning.” The screams of wounded mammoths and the booming cries of giants mingled with the drums and pipes to make an awful music, yet still his archers drew and loosed, as if they’d all gone as deaf as dead Dick Follard. They might be the dregs of the order, but they were men of the Night’s Watch, or near enough as made no matter. That’s why they shall not pass.

  One of the mammoths was running berserk, smashing wildlings with his trunk and crushing archers underfoot. Jon pulled back his bow once more, and launched another arrow at the beast’s shaggy back to urge him on. To east and west, the flanks of the wildling host had reached the Wall unopposed. The chariots drew in or turned while the horsemen milled aimlessly beneath the looming cliff of ice. “At the gate!” a shout came. Spare Boot, maybe. “Mammoth at the gate!”

  “Fire,” Jon barked. “Grenn, Pyp.”

  Grenn thrust his bow aside, wrestled a barrel of oil onto its side, and rolled it to the edge of the Wall, where Pyp hammered out the plug that sealed it, stuffed in a twist of cloth, and set it alight with a torch. They shoved it over together. A hundred feet below it struck the Wall and burst, filling the air with shattered staves and burning oil. Grenn was rolling a second barrel to the precipice by then, and Kegs had one as well. Pyp lit them both. “Got him!” Satin shouted, his head sticking out so far that Jon was certain he was about to fall. “Got him, got him, GOT him!” He could hear the roar of fire. A flaming giant lurched into view, stumbling and rolling on the ground.

  Then suddenly the mammoths were fleeing, running from the smoke and flames and smashing into those behind them in their terror. Those went backward too, the giants and wildlings behind them scrambling to get out of their way. In half a heartbeat the whole center was collapsing. The horsemen on the flanks saw themselves being abandoned and decided to fall back as well, not one so much as blooded. Even the chariots rumbled off, having done nothing but look fearsome and make a lot of noise. When they break, they break hard, Jon Snow thought as he watched them reel away. The drums had all gone silent. How do you like that music, Mance? How do you like the taste of the Dornishman’s wife? “Do we have anyone hurt?” he asked.

  “The bloody buggers got my leg.” Spare Boot plucked the arrow out and waved it above his head. “The wooden one!”

  A ragged cheer went up. Zei grabbed Owen by the hands, spun him around in a circle, and gave him a long wet kiss right there for all to see. She tried to kiss Jon too, but he held her by the shoulder and pushed her gently but firmly away. “No,” he said. I am done with kissing. Suddenly he was too weary to stand, and his leg was agony from knee to groin. He fumbled for his crutch. “Pyp, help me to the cage. Grenn, you have the Wall.”

  “Me?” said Grenn. “Him?” said Pyp. It was hard to tell which of them was more horrified. “But,” Grenn stammered, “b-but what do I do if the wildlings attack again?”

  “Stop them,” Jon told him.

  As they rode down in the cage, Pyp took off his helm and wiped his brow. “Frozen sweat. Is there anything as disgusting as frozen sweat?” He laughed. “Gods, I don’t think I have ever been so hungry. I could eat an aurochs whole, I swear it. Do you think Hobb will cook up Grenn for us?” When he saw Jon’s face, his smile died. “What’s wrong? Is it your leg?”

  “My leg,” Jon agreed. Even the words were an effort.

  “Not the battle, though? We won the battle.”

  “Ask me when I’ve seen the gate,” Jon said grimly. I want a fire, a hot meal, a warm bed, and something to make my leg stop hurting, he told himself. But first he had to check the tunnel and find what had become of Donal Noye.

  After the battle with the Thenns it had taken them almost a day to clear the ice and broken beams away from the inner gate. Spotted Pate and Kegs and some of the other builders had argued heatedly that they ought just leave the debris there, another obstacle for Mance. That would have meant abandoning the defense of the tunnel, though, and Noye was having none of it. With men in the murder holes and archers and spears behind each inner grate, a few determined brothers could hold off a hundred times as many wildlings and clog the way with corpses. He did not mean to give Mance Rayder free passage through the ice. So with pick and spade and ropes, they had moved the broken steps aside and dug back down to the gate.

  Jon waited by the cold iron bars while Pyp went to Maester Aemon for the spare key. Surprisingly, the maester himself returned with him, and Clydas with a lantern. “Come see me when we are done,” the old man told Jon while Pyp was fumbling with the chains. “I need to change your dressing and apply a fresh poultice, and you will want some more dreamwine for the pain.”

  Jon nodded weakly. The door swung open. Pyp led them in, followed by Clydas and the lantern. It was all Jon could do to keep up with Maester Aemon. The ice pressed close around them, and he could feel the cold seeping into his bones, the weight of the Wall above his head. It felt like walking down the gullet of an ice dragon. The tunnel took a twist, and then another. Pyp unlocked a second iron gate. They walked farther, turned again, and saw light ahead, faint and pale through the ice. That’s bad, Jon knew at once. That’s very bad.

  Then Pyp said, “There’s blood on the floor.”

  The last twenty feet of the tunnel was where they’d fought and died. The outer door of studded oak had been hacked and broken and finally torn off its hinges, and one of the giants had crawled in through the splinters. The lantern bathed the grisly scene in a sullen reddish light. Pyp turned aside to retch, and Jon found himself envying Maester Aemon his blindness.

  Noye and his men had been waiting within, behind a gate of heavy iron bars like the two Pyp had just unlocked. The two crossbows had gotten off a dozen quarrels as the giant struggled toward them. Then the spearmen must have come to the fore, stabbing through the bars. Still the giant found the strength to reach through, twist the head off Spotted Pate, seize the iron gate, and wrench the bars apart. Links of broken chain lay strewn across the floor. One giant. All this was the work of one giant.

  “Are they all dead?” Maester Aemon asked softly.

  “Yes. Donal was the last.” Noye’s sword was sunk deep in the giant’s throat, halfway to the hilt. The armorer had always seemed such a big man to Jon, but locked in the giant’s massive arms he looked almost like a child. “The giant crushed his spine. I don’t know who died first.” He took the lantern and moved forward for a better look. “Mag.” I am the last of the giants. He could feel the sadness there, but he had no time for sadness. “It was Mag the Mighty. The king of the giants.”

  He needed sun then. It was too cold and dark inside the tunnel, and the stench of
blood and death was suffocating. Jon gave the lantern back to Clydas, squeezed around the bodies and through the twisted bars, and walked toward the daylight to see what lay beyond the splintered door.

  The huge carcass of a dead mammoth partially blocked the way. One of the beast’s tusks snagged his cloak and tore it as he edged past. Three more giants lay outside, half buried beneath stone and slush and hardened pitch. He could see where the fire had melted the Wall, where great sheets of ice had come sloughing off in the heat to shatter on the blackened ground. He looked up at where they’d come from. When you stand here it seems immense, as if it were about to crush you.

  Jon went back inside to where the others waited. “We need to repair the outer gate as best we can and then block up this section of the tunnel. Rubble, chunks of ice, anything. All the way to the second gate, if we can. Ser Wynton will need to take command, he’s the last knight left, but he needs to move now, the giants will be back before we know it. We have to tell him—”

  “Tell him what you will,” said Maester Aemon, gently. “He will smile, nod, and forget. Thirty years ago Ser Wynton Stout came within a dozen votes of being Lord Commander. He would have made a fine one. Ten years ago he would still have been capable. No longer. You know that as well as Donal did, Jon.”

  It was true. “You give the order, then,” Jon told the maester. “You have been on the Wall your whole life, the men will follow you. We have to close the gate.”

  “I am a maester chained and sworn. My order serves, Jon. We give counsel, not commands.”

  “Someone must—”

  “You. You must lead.”


  “Yes, Jon. It need not be for long. Only until such time as the garrison returns. Donal chose you, and Qhorin Halfhand before him. Lord Commander Mormont made you his steward. You are a son of Winterfell, a nephew of Benjen Stark. It must be you or no one. The Wall is yours, Jon Snow.”


  She could feel the hole inside her every morning when she woke. It wasn’t hunger, though sometimes there was that too. It was a hollow place, an emptiness where her heart had been, where her brothers had lived, and her parents. Her head hurt too. Not as bad as it had at first, but still pretty bad. Arya was used to that, though, and at least the lump was going down. But the hole inside her stayed the same. The hole will never feel any better, she told herself when she went to sleep.

  Some mornings Arya did not want to wake at all. She would huddle beneath her cloak with her eyes squeezed shut and try to will herself back to sleep. If the Hound would only have left her alone, she would have slept all day and all night.

  And dreamed. That was the best part, the dreaming. She dreamed of wolves most every night. A great pack of wolves, with her at the head. She was bigger than any of them, stronger, swifter, faster. She could outrun horses and outfight lions. When she bared her teeth even men would run from her, her belly was never empty long, and her fur kept her warm even when the wind was blowing cold. And her brothers and sisters were with her, many and more of them, fierce and terrible and hers. They would never leave her.

  But if her nights were full of wolves, her days belonged to the dog. Sandor Clegane made her get up every morning, whether she wanted to or not. He would curse at her in his raspy voice, or yank her to her feet and shake her. Once he dumped a helm full of cold water all over her head. She bounced up sputtering and shivering and tried to kick him, but he only laughed. “Dry off and feed the bloody horses,” he told her, and she did.

  They had two now, Stranger and a sorrel palfrey mare Arya had named Craven, because Sandor said she’d likely run off from the Twins the same as them. They’d found her wandering riderless through a field the morning after the slaughter. She was a good enough horse, but Arya could not love a coward. Stranger would have fought. Still, she tended the mare as best she knew. It was better than riding double with the Hound. And Craven might have been a coward, but she was young and strong as well. Arya thought that she might be able to outrun Stranger, if it came to it.

  The Hound no longer watched her as closely as he had. Sometimes he did not seem to care whether she stayed or went, and he no longer bound her up in a cloak at night. One night I’ll kill him in his sleep, she told herself, but she never did. One day I’ll ride away on Craven, and he won’t be able to catch me, she thought, but she never did that either. Where would she go? Winterfell was gone. Her grandfather’s brother was at Riverrun, but he didn’t know her, no more than she knew him. Maybe Lady Smallwood would take her in at Acorn Hall, but maybe she wouldn’t. Besides, Arya wasn’t even sure she could find Acorn Hall again. Sometimes she thought she might go back to Sharna’s inn, if the floods hadn’t washed it away. She could stay with Hot Pie, or maybe Lord Beric would find her there. Anguy would teach her to use a bow, and she could ride with Gendry and be an outlaw, like Wenda the White Fawn in the songs.

  But that was just stupid, like something Sansa might dream. Hot Pie and Gendry had left her just as soon as they could, and Lord Beric and the outlaws only wanted to ransom her, just like the Hound. None of them wanted her around. They were never my pack, not even Hot Pie and Gendry. I was stupid to think so, just a stupid little girl, and no wolf at all.

  So she stayed with the Hound. They rode every day, never sleeping twice in the same place, avoiding towns and villages and castles as best they could. Once she asked Sandor Clegane where they were going. “Away,” he said. “That’s all you need to know. You’re not worth spit to me now, and I don’t want to hear your whining. I should have let you run into that bloody castle.”

  “You should have,” she agreed, thinking of her mother.

  “You’d be dead if I had. You ought to thank me. You ought to sing me a pretty little song, the way your sister did.”

  “Did you hit her with an axe too?”

  “I hit you with the flat of the axe, you stupid little bitch. If I’d hit you with the blade there’d still be chunks of your head floating down the Green Fork. Now shut your bloody mouth. If I had any sense I’d give you to the silent sisters. They cut the tongues out of girls who talk too much.”

  That wasn’t fair of him to say. Aside from that one time, Arya hardly talked at all. Whole days passed when neither of them said anything. She was too empty to talk, and the Hound was too angry. She could feel the fury in him; she could see it on his face, the way his mouth would tighten and twist, the looks he gave her. Whenever he took his axe to chop some wood for a fire, he would slide into a cold rage, hacking savagely at the tree or the deadfall or the broken limb, until they had twenty times as much kindling and firewood as they’d needed. Sometimes he would be so sore and tired afterward that he would lie down and go right to sleep without even lighting a fire. Arya hated it when that happened, and hated him too. Those were the nights when she stared the longest at the axe. It looks awfully heavy, but I bet I could swing it. She wouldn’t hit him with the flat, either.

  Sometimes in their wanderings they glimpsed other people; farmers in their fields, swineherds with their pigs, a milkmaid leading a cow, a squire carrying a message down a rutted road. She never wanted to speak to them either. It was as if they lived in some distant land and spoke a queer alien tongue; they had nothing to do with her, or her with them.

  Besides, it wasn’t safe to be seen. From time to time columns of horsemen passed down the winding farm roads, the twin towers of Frey flying before them. “Hunting for stray northmen,” the Hound said when they had passed. “Any time you hear hooves, get your head down fast, it’s not like to be a friend.”

  One day, in an earthen hollow made by the roots of a fallen oak, they came face to face with another survivor of the Twins. The badge on his breast showed a pink maiden dancing in a swirl of silk, and he told them he was Ser Marq Piper’s man; a bowman, though he’d lost his bow. His left shoulder was all twisted and swollen where it met his arm; a blow from a mace, he said, it had broken his shoulder and smashed his chainmail deep into his flesh. “A northman, it wa
s,” he wept. “His badge was a bloody man, and he saw mine and made a jape, red man and pink maiden, maybe they should get together. I drank to his Lord Bolton, he drank to Ser Marq, and we drank together to Lord Edmure and Lady Roslin and the King in the North. And then he killed me.” His eyes were fever bright when he said that, and Arya could tell that it was true. His shoulder was swollen grotesquely, and pus and blood had stained his whole left side. There was a stink to him too. He smells like a corpse. The man begged them for a drink of wine.

  “If I’d had any wine, I’d have drunk it myself,” the Hound told him. “I can give you water, and the gift of mercy.”

  The archer looked at him a long while before he said, “You’re Joffrey’s dog.”

  “My own dog now. Do you want the water?”

  “Aye.” The man swallowed. “And the mercy. Please.”

  They had passed a small pond a short ways back. Sandor gave Arya his helm and told her to fill it, so she trudged back to the water’s edge. Mud squished over the toe of her boots. She used the dog’s head as a pail. Water ran out through the eyeholes, but the bottom of the helm still held a lot.

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