You are as hopeless as any boys I have ever trained,” Ser Alliser Thorne announced when they had all assembled in the yard.“Your hands were made for manure shovels, not for swords, and if it were up to me, the lot of you would be set to herding swine.But last night I was told that Gueren is marching five new boys up the kingsroad.
One or two may even be worth the price of piss. To make room for them, I have decided to pass eight of you on to the Lord Commander to do with as he will.” He called out the names one by one. “Toad. Stone Head. Aurochs. Lover. Pimple. Monkey. Ser Loon.” Last, he looked at Jon. “And the Bastard.”
Pyp let fly a whoop and thrust his sword into the air. Ser Alliser fixed him with a reptile stare. “They will call you men of Night’s Watch now, but you are bigger fools than the Mummer’s Monkey here if you believe that. You are boys still, green and stinking of summer, and when the winter comes you will die like flies.” And with that, Ser Alliser Thorne took his leave of them.
The other boys gathered round the eight who had been named, laughing and cursing and offering congratulations. Halder smacked Toad on the butt with the flat of his sword and shouted, “Toad, of the Night’s Watch!” Yelling that a black brother needed a horse, Pyp leapt onto Grenn’s shoulders, and they tumbled to the ground, rolling and punching and hooting. Dareon dashed inside the armory and returned with a skin of sour red. As they passed the wine from hand to hand, grinning like fools, Jon noticed Samwell Tarly standing by himself beneath a bare dead tree in the corner of the yard. Jon offered him the skin. “A swallow of wine?”
Sam shook his head. “No thank you, Jon.”
“Are you well?”
“Very well, truly,” the fat boy lied. “I am so happy for you all.” His round face quivered as he forced a smile. “You will be First Ranger someday, just as your uncle was.”
“Is,” Jon corrected. He would not accept that Benjen Stark was dead. Before he could say more, Haider cried, “Here, you planning to drink that all yourself?” Pyp snatched the skin from his hand and danced away, laughing. While Grenn seized his arm, Pyp gave the skin a squeeze, and a thin stream of red squirted Jon in the face. Haider howled in protest at the waste of good wine. Jon sputtered and struggled. Matthar and Jeren climbed the wall and began pelting them all with snowballs.
By the time he wrenched free, with snow in his hair and wine stains on his surcoat, Samwell Tarly had gone.
That night, Three-Finger Hobb cooked the boys a special meal to mark the occasion. When Jon arrived at the common hall, the Lord Steward himself led him to the bench near the fire. The older men clapped him on the arm in passing. The eight soon-to-be brothers feasted on rack of lamb baked in a crust of garlic and herbs, garnished with sprigs of mint, and surrounded by mashed yellow turnips swimming in butter. “From the Lord Commander’s own table,” Bowen Marsh told them. There were salads of spinach and chickpeas and turnip greens, and afterward bowls of iced blueberries and sweet cream.
“Do you think they’ll keep us together?” Pyp wondered as they gorged themselves happily.
Toad made a face. “I hope not. I’m sick of looking at those ears of yours.”
“Ho,” said Pyp. “Listen to the crow call the raven black. You’re certain to be a ranger, Toad. They’ll want you as far from the castle as they can. If Mance Rayder attacks, lift your visor and show your face, and he’ll run off screaming.”
Everyone laughed but Grenn. “I hope I’m a ranger.”
“You and everyone else,” said Matthar. Every man who wore the black walked the Wall, and every man was expected to take up steel in its defense, but the rangers were the true fighting heart of the Night’s Watch. It was they who dared ride beyond the Wall, sweeping through the haunted forest and the icy mountain heights west of the Shadow Tower, fighting wildlings and giants and monstrous snow bears.
“Not everyone,” said Halder. “It’s the builders for me. What use would rangers be if the Wall fell down?”
The order of builders provided the masons and carpenters to repair keeps and towers, the miners to dig tunnels and crush stone for roads and footpaths, the woodsmen to clear away new growth wherever the forest pressed too close to the Wall. Once, it was said, they had quarried immense blocks of ice from frozen lakes deep in the haunted forest, dragging them south on sledges so the Wall might be raised ever higher. Those days were centuries gone, however; now, it was all they could do to ride the Wall from Eastwatch to the Shadow Tower, watching for cracks or signs of melt and making what repairs they could.
“The Old Bear’s no fool,” Dareon observed. “You’re certain to be a builder, and Jon’s certain to be a ranger. He’s the best sword and the best rider among us, and his uncle was the First before he . . . ” His voice trailed off awkwardly as he realized what he had almost said.
“Benjen Stark is still First Ranger,” Jon Snow told him, toying with his bowl of blueberries. The rest might have given up all hope of his uncle’s safe return, but not him. He pushed away the berries, scarcely touched, and rose from the bench.
“Aren’t you going to eat those?” Toad asked.
“They’re yours.” Jon had hardly tasted Hobb’s great feast. “I could not eat another bite.” He took his cloak from its hook near the door and shouldered his way out.
Pyp followed him. “Jon, what is it?”
“Sam,” he admitted. “He was not at table tonight.”
“It’s not like him to miss a meal,” Pyp said thoughtfully. “Do you suppose he’s taken ill?”
“He’s frightened. We’re leaving him.” He remembered the day he had left Winterfell, all the bittersweet farewells; Bran lying broken, Robb with snow in his hair, Arya raining kisses on him after he’d given her Needle. “Once we say our words, we’ll all have duties to attend to. Some of us may be sent away, to Eastwatch or the Shadow Tower. Sam will remain in training, with the likes of Rast and Cuger and these new boys who are coming up the kingsroad. Gods only know what they’ll be like, but you can bet Ser Alliser will send them against him, first chance he gets.”
Pyp made a grimace. “You did all you could.”
“All we could wasn’t enough,” Jon said.
A deep restlessness was on him as he went back to Hardin’s Tower for Ghost. The direwolf walked beside him to the stables. Some of the more skittish horses kicked at their stalls and laid back their ears as they entered. Jon saddled his mare, mounted, and rode out from Castle Black, south across the moonlit night. Ghost raced ahead of him, flying over the ground, gone in the blink of an eye. Jon let him go. A wolf needed to hunt.
He had no destination in mind. He wanted only to ride. He followed the creek for a time, listening to the icy trickle of water over rock, then cut across the fields to the kingsroad. It stretched out before him, narrow and stony and pocked with weeds, a road of no particular promise, yet the sight of it filled Jon Snow with a vast longing. Winterfell was down that road, and beyond it Riverrun and King’s Landing and the Eyrie and so many other places; Casterly Rock, the Isle of Faces, the red mountains of Dorne, the hundred islands of Braavos in the sea, the smoking ruins of old Valyria. All the places that Jon would never see. The world was down that road . . . and he was here.
Once he swore his vow, the Wall would be his home until he was old as Maester Aemon. “I have not sworn yet,” he muttered. He was no outlaw, bound to take the black or pay the penalty for his crimes. He had come here freely, and he might leave freely . . . until he said the words. He need only ride on, and he could leave it all behind. By the time the moon was full again, he would be back in Winterfell with his brothers.
Your half brothers, a voice inside reminded him. And Lady Stark, who will not welcome you. There was no place for him in Winterfell, no place in King’s Landing either. Even his own mother had not had a place for him. The thought of her made him sad. He wondered who she had been, what she had looked like, why his father had left her. Because she was a whore or an adulteress, fool. Something dark and dishonorable, or else why was Lord Eddard too ashamed to speak of her?
Jon Snow turned away from the kingsroad to look behind him. The fires of Castle Black were hidden behind a hill, but the Wall was there, pale beneath the moon, vast and cold, running from horizon to horizon.
He wheeled his horse around and started for home.
Ghost returned as he crested a rise and saw the distant glow of lamplight from the Lord Commander’s Tower. The direwolf s muzzle was red with blood as he trotted beside the horse. Jon found himself thinking of Samwell Tarly again on the ride back. By the time he reached the stables, he knew what he must do.
Maester Aemon’s apartments were in a stout wooden keep below the rookery. Aged and frail, the maester shared his chambers with two of the younger stewards, who tended to his needs and helped him in his duties. The brothers joked that he had been given the two ugliest men in the Night’s Watch; being blind, he was spared having to look at them. Clydas was short, bald, and chinless, with small pink eyes like a mole. Chett had a wen on his neck the size of a pigeon’s egg, and a face red with boils and pimples. Perhaps that was why he always seemed so angry.
It was Chett who answered Jon’s knock. “I need to speak to Maester Aemon,” Jon told him.
“The maester is abed, as you should be. Come back on the morrow and maybe he’ll see you.” He began to shut the door.
Jon jammed it open with his boot. “I need to speak to him now. The morning will be too late.”
Chett scowled. “The maester is not accustomed to being woken in the night. Do you know how old he is?”
“Old enough to treat visitors with more courtesy than you,” Jon said. “Give him my pardons. I would not disturb his rest if it were not important.”
“And if I refuse?”
Jon had his boot wedged solidly in the door. “I can stand here all night if I must.”
The black brother made a disgusted noise and opened the door to admit him. “Wait in the library. There’s wood. Start a fire. I won’t have the maester catching a chill on account of you.”
Jon had the logs crackling merrily by the time Chett led in Maester Aemon. The old man was clad in his bed robe, but around his throat was the chain collar of his order. A maester did not remove it even to sleep. “The chair beside the fire would be pleasant,” he said when he felt the warmth on his face. When he was settled comfortably, Chett covered his legs with a fur and went to stand by the door.
“I am sorry to have woken you, Maester,” Jon Snow said.
“You did not wake me,” Maester Aemon replied. “I find I need less sleep as I grow older, and I am grown very old. I often spend half the night with ghosts, remembering times fifty years past as if they were yesterday. The mystery of a midnight visitor is a welcome persion. So tell me, Jon Snow, why have you come calling at this strange hour?”
“To ask that Samwell Tarly be taken from training and accepted as a brother of the Night’s Watch.”
“This is no concern of Maester Aemon,” Chett complained.
“Our Lord Commander has given the training of recruits into the hands of Ser Alliser Thorne,” the maester said gently. “Only he may say when a boy is ready to swear his vow, as you surely know. Why then come to me?”
“The Lord Commander listens to you,” Jon told him. “And the wounded and the sick of the Night’s Watch are in your charge.”
“And is your friend Samwell wounded or sick?”
“He will be,” Jon promised, “unless you help.”
He told them all of it, even the part where he’d set Ghost at Rast’s throat. Maester Aemon listened silently, blind eyes fixed on the fire, but Chett’s face darkened with each word. “Without us to keep him safe, Sam will have no chance,” Jon finished. “He’s hopeless with a sword. My sister Arya could tear him apart, and she’s not yet ten. If Ser Alliser makes him fight, it’s only a matter of time before he’s hurt or killed.”
Chett could stand no more. “I’ve seen this fat boy in the common hall,” he said. “He is a pig, and a hopeless craven as well, if what you say is true.”
“Maybe it is so,” Maester Aemon said. “Tell me, Chett, what would you have us do with such a boy?”
“Leave him where he is,” Chett said. “The Wall is no place for the weak. Let him train until he is ready, no matter how many years that takes. Ser Alliser shall make a man of him or kill him, as the gods will.”
“That’s stupid,” Jon said. He took a deep breath to gather his thoughts. “I remember once I asked Maester Luwin why he wore a chain around his throat.”
Maester Aemon touched his own collar lightly, his bony, wrinkled finger stroking the heavy metal links. “Go on.”
“He told me that a maester’s collar is made of chain to remind him that he is sworn to serve,” Jon said, remembering. “I asked why each link was a different metal. A silver chain would look much finer with his grey robes, I said. Maester Luwin laughed. A maester forges his chain with study, he told me. The different metals are each a different kind of learning, gold for the study of money and accounts, silver for healing, iron for warcraft. And he said there were other meanings as well. The collar is supposed to remind a maester of the realm he serves, isn’t that so? Lords are gold and knights steel, but two links can’t make a chain. You also need silver and iron and lead, tin and copper and bronze and all the rest, and those are farmers and smiths and merchants and the like. A chain needs all sorts of metals, and a land needs all sorts of people.”
Maester Aemon smiled. “And so?”
“The Night’s Watch needs all sorts too. Why else have rangers and stewards and builders? Lord Randyll couldn’t make Sam a warrior, and Ser Alliser won’t either. You can’t hammer tin into iron, no matter how hard you beat it, but that doesn’t mean tin is useless. Why shouldn’t Sam be a steward?”
Chett gave an angry scowl. “I’m a steward. You think it’s easy work, fit for cowards? The order of stewards keeps the Watch alive. We hunt and farm, tend the horses, milk the cows, gather firewood, cook the meals. Who do you think makes your clothing? Who brings up supplies from the south? The stewards.”
Maester Aemon was gentler. “Is your friend a hunter?”
“He hates hunting,” Jon had to admit.
“Can he plow a field?” the maester asked. “Can he drive a wagon or sail a ship? Could he butcher a cow?”
Chett gave a nasty laugh. “I’ve seen what happens to soft lordlings when they’re put to work. Set them to churning butter and their hands blister and bleed. Give them an axe to split logs, and they cut off their own foot.”
“I know one thing Sam could do better than anyone.”
“Yes?” Maester Aemon prompted.
Jon glanced warily at Chett, standing beside the door, his boils red and angry. “He could help you,” he said quickly. “He can do sums, and he knows how to read and write. I know Chett can’t read, and Clydas has weak eyes. Sam read every book in his father’s library. He’d be good with the ravens too. Animals seem to like him. Ghost took to him straight off. There’s a lot he could do, besides fighting. The Night’s Watch needs every man. Why kill one, to no end? Make use of him instead.”
Maester Aemon closed his eyes, and for a brief moment Jon was afraid that he had gone to sleep. Finally he said, “Maester Luwin taught you well, Jon Snow. Your mind is as deft as your blade, it would seem.”
“Does that mean . . . “
“It means I shall think on what you have said,” the maester told him firmly. “And now, I believe I am ready to sleep. Chett, show our young brother to the door.”