The day was grey and bitter cold, and the dogs would not take the scent.
The big black bitch had taken one sniff at the bear tracks, backed off, and skulked back to the pack with her tail between her legs. The dogs huddled together miserably on the riverbank as the wind snapped at them. Chett felt it too, biting through his layers of black wool and boiled leather. It was too bloody cold for man or beast, but here they were. His mouth twisted, and he could almost feel the boils that covered his cheeks and neck growing red and angry. I should be safe back at the Wall, tending the bloody ravens and making fires for old Maester Aemon. It was the bastard Jon Snow who had taken that from him, him and his fat friend Sam Tarly. It was their fault he was here, freezing his bloody balls off with a pack of hounds deep in the haunted forest.
“Seven hells.” He gave the leashes a hard yank to get the dogs’ attention. “Track, you bastards. That’s a bear print. You want some meat or no? Find!” But the hounds only huddled closer, whining. Chett snapped his short lash above their heads, and the black bitch snarled at him. “Dog meat would taste as good as bear,” he warned her, his breath frosting with every word.
Lark the Sisterman stood with his arms crossed over his chest and his hands tucked up into his armpits. He wore black wool gloves, but he was always complaining how his fingers were frozen. “It’s too bloody cold to hunt,” he said. “Bugger this bear, he’s not worth freezing over.”
“We can’t go back emptyhand, Lark,” rumbled Small Paul through the brown whiskers that covered most of his face. “The Lord Commander wouldn’t like that.” There was ice under the big man’s squashed pug nose, where his snot had frozen. A huge hand in a thick fur glove clenched tight around the shaft of a spear.
“Bugger that Old Bear too,” said the Sisterman, a thin man with sharp features and nervous eyes. “Mormont will be dead before daybreak, remember? Who cares what he likes?”
Small Paul blinked his black little eyes. Maybe he had forgotten, Chett thought; he was stupid enough to forget most anything. “Why do we have to kill the Old Bear? Why don’t we just go off and let him be?”
“You think he’ll let us be?” said Lark. “He’ll hunt us down. You want to be hunted, you great muttonhead?”
“No,” said Small Paul. “I don’t want that. I don’t.”
“So you’ll kill him?” said Lark.
“Yes.” The huge man stamped the butt of his spear on the frozen riverbank. “I will. He shouldn’t hunt us.”
The Sisterman took his hands from his armpits and turned to Chett. “We need to kill all the officers, I say.”
Chett was sick of hearing it. “We been over this. The Old Bear dies, and Blane from the Shadow Tower. Grubbs and Aethan as well, their ill luck for drawing the watch, Dywen and Bannen for their tracking, and Ser Piggy for the ravens. That’s all. We kill them quiet, while they sleep. One scream and we’re wormfood, every one of us.” His boils were red with rage. “Just do your bit and see that your cousins do theirs. And Paul, try and remember, it’s third watch, not second.”
“Third watch,” the big man said, through hair and frozen snot. “Me and Softfoot. I remember, Chett.”
The moon would be black tonight, and they had jiggered the watches so as to have eight of their own standing sentry, with two more guarding the horses. It wasn’t going to get much riper than that. Besides, the wildlings could be upon them any day now. Chett meant to be well away from here before that happened. He meant to live.
Three hundred sworn brothers of the Night’s Watch had ridden north, two hundred from Castle Black and another hundred from the Shadow Tower. It was the biggest ranging in living memory, near a third of the Watch’s strength. They meant to find Ben Stark, Ser Waymar Royce, and the other rangers who’d gone missing, and discover why the wildlings were leaving their villages. Well, they were no closer to Stark and Royce than when they’d left the Wall, but they’d learned where all the wildlings had gone—up into the icy heights of the godsforsaken Frostfangs. They could squat up there till the end of time and it wouldn’t prick Chett’s boils none.
But no. They were coming down. Down the Milkwater.
Chett raised his eyes and there it was. The river’s stony banks were bearded by ice, its pale milky waters flowing endlessly down out of the Frostfangs. And now Mance Rayder and his wildlings were flowing down the same way. Thoren Smallwood had returned in a lather three days past. While he was telling the Old Bear what his scouts had seen, his man Kedge Whiteye told the rest of them. “They’re still well up the foothills, but they’re coming,” Kedge said, warming his hands over the fire. “Harma the Dogshead has the van, the poxy bitch. Goady crept up on her camp and saw her plain by the fire. That fool Tumberjon wanted to pick her off with an arrow, but Smallwood had better sense.”
Chett spat. “How many were there, could you tell?”
“Many and more. Twenty, thirty thousand, we didn’t stay to count. Harma had five hundred in the van, every one ahorse.”
The men around the fire exchanged uneasy looks. It was a rare thing to find even a dozen mounted wildlings, and five hundred . . .
“Smallwood sent Bannen and me wide around the van to catch a peek at the main body,” Kedge went on. “There was no end of them. They’re moving slow as a frozen river, four, five miles a day, but they don’t look like they mean to go back to their villages neither. More’n half were women and children, and they were driving their animals before them, goats, sheep, even aurochs dragging sledges. They’d loaded up with bales of fur and sides of meat, cages of chickens, butter churns and spinning wheels, every damn thing they own. The mules and garrons was so heavy laden you’d think their backs would break. The women as well.”
“And they follow the Milkwater?” Lark the Sisterman asked.
“I said so, didn’t I?”
The Milkwater would take them past the Fist of the First Men, the ancient ringfort where the Night’s Watch had made its camp. Any man with a thimble of sense could see that it was time to pull up stakes and fall back on the Wall. The Old Bear had strengthened the Fist with spikes and pits and caltrops, but against such a host all that was pointless. If they stayed here, they would be engulfed and overwhelmed.
And Thoren Smallwood wanted to attack. Sweet Donnel Hill was squire to Ser Mallador Locke, and the night before last Smallwood had come to Locke’s tent. Ser Mallador had been of the same mind as old Ser Ottyn Wythers, urging a retreat on the Wall, but Smallwood wanted to convince him otherwise. “This King-beyond-the-Wall will never look for us so far north,” Sweet Donnel reported him saying. “And this great host of his is a shambling horde, full of useless mouths who won’t know what end of a sword to hold. One blow will take all the fight out of them and send them howling back to their hovels for another fifty years.”
Three hundred against thirty thousand. Chett called that rank madness, and what was madder still was that Ser Mallador had been persuaded, and the two of them together were on the point of persuading the Old Bear. “If we wait too long, this chance may be lost, never to come again,” Smallwood was saying to anyone who would listen. Against that, Ser Ottyn Wythers said, “We are the shield that guards the realms of men. You do not throw away your shield for no good purpose,” but to that Thoren Smallwood said, “In a swordfight, a man’s surest defense is the swift stroke that slays his foe, not cringing behind a shield.”
Neither Smallwood nor Wythers had the command, though. Lord Mormont did, and Mormont was waiting for his other scouts, for Jarman Buckwell and the men who’d climbed the Giant’s Stair, and for Qhorin Halfhand and Jon Snow, who’d gone to probe the Skirling Pass. Buckwell and the Halfhand were late in returning, though. Dead, most like. Chett pictured Jon Snow lying blue and frozen on some bleak mountaintop with a wildling spear up his bastard’s arse. The thought made him smile. I hope they killed his bloody wolf as well.
“There’s no bear here,” he decided abruptly. “Just an old print, that’s all. Back to the Fist.” The dogs almost yanked him off his feet, as eager to get back as he was. Maybe they thought they were going to get fed. Chett had to laugh. He hadn’t fed them for three days now, to turn them mean and hungry. Tonight, before slipping off into the dark, he’d turn them loose among the horse lines, after Sweet Donnel Hill and Clubfoot Karl cut the tethers. They’ll have snarling hounds and panicked horses all over the Fist, running through fires, jumping the ringwall, and trampling down tents. With all the confusion, it might be hours before anyone noticed that fourteen brothers were missing.