Book 1: A Game of Thrones
“We should head back to the Wall,” Gared urged as the woods began to grow dark around them. “The wildlings are dead.”
“Do the dead frighten you?” Ser Waymar Royce asked with just the hint of a smile.
Gared did not rise to the bait. He had seen the lordlings come and go. “Dead is dead,” he said. “We have no business with the dead.”
“Are they dead?” Royce asked softly. “What proof have we?”
“Will saw them,” Gared said. “If he says they are dead, that’s proof enough for me.”
Will had known they would drag him into the quarrel sooner or later. He wished it had been later rather than sooner. “My mother told me that dead men sing no songs,” he put in.
“My wet nurse said the same thing, Will,” Royce replied. “Never believe anything you hear at a woman’s tit. There are things to be learned even from the dead.” His voice echoed, too loud in the twilit forest.
“We have a long ride before us,” Gared point out. “Eight days, maybe nine. And night is falling.”
Ser Waymar Royce glanced at the sky with disinterest. “It does that every day about this time. Are you unmanned by the dark, Gared?”
Will could see the tightness around Gared’s mouth, the barely suppressed anger in his eyes under the thick black hood of his cloak. Gared had spent many years in the Night’s Watch, and he was not accustomed to being made light of. Yet it was more than that. Under the wounded pride, Will could sense something else in the older man. You could taste it; a nervous tension that came perilous close to fear.
Will shared his unease. He had been four years on the Wall. The first time he had been sent beyond, all the old stories had come rushing back, and his bowels had turned to water. He had laughed about it afterward. He was a veteran of a hundred rankings by now, and the endless dark wilderness the southron called the Haunted Forest had no more terrors for him.
Until tonight. Something was different tonight. There was an edge to this darkness that made his hackles rise. Nine days they had been riding, north and northwest and then north again, farther and farther from the Wall, hard on the track of a band of wildling raiders. Each day had been worse than the day that had come before it. Today was the worst of all. A cold wind was blowing out of the north, and it made the trees rustle like living things. All day, Will had felt as though something was watching him, something cold and implacable that loved him not. Gared had felt it too. Will wanted nothing so much as to ride hellbent for the safety of the Wall, but that was not a feeling to share with your commander.
Especially not a commander like this one.
Ser Waymar Royce was the youngest son of an ancient noble house with too many heirs. He was a handsome youth of eighteen, graceful and slender as a knife. Mounted on his huge black destrier, the knight towered above Will and Gared on their smaller garrons. He wore black leather boots, black woolen pants, black moleskin gloves, and a fine supple coat of gleaming black ringmail over layers of black wool and boiled leather. Ser Waymar had been a Sworn Brother of the Night’s Watch for less than half a year, but no one could say he had not prepared for his vocation. At least insofar as his wardrobe was concerned.
“Mormon said we should track them, and we did,” Gared said. “They’re dead. They shan’t trouble us no more. There’s hard riding before us. I don’t like this weather. If it snows, we could be a fortnight getting back, and snow’s the best we can hope for. Ever seen an ice storm, my lord?”
The lordling seemed not to hear him. He studied the deepening twilight in that half-bored, half-distracted way he had. Will had ridden with the knight long enough to understand that it was best not to interrupt him when he looked like that.
Will had been a hunter before he joined the Night’s Watch. Well, a poacher in truth. Mallister freeriders had caught him red-handed in the Mallisters’ own woods, skinning one of the Mallisters’ own bucks, and it had been a choice of putting on the black or losing a hand. No one could move through the woods as silent as Will, and it had not taken the black brothers long to discover his talent.
The young knight turned back to his grizzled man-at-arms. Frost fallen leaves whispered past them, and Royce’s destrier moved restlessly. “What do you think might have killed these men, Gared?” Ser Waymar asked casually. He adjusted the drape of his long sable cloak.
“It was the cold,” Gared said with iron certainty. “I saw men freeze last winter, and the one before, when I was half a boy. Everyone talks about snows forty foot deep, and how the ice wind comes howling out of the north, but the real enemy is the cold. It steals up on you quieter than Will, and at first you shiver and your teeth chatter and you stamp your feet and dream of mulled wine and nice hot fires. It burns, it does. Nothing burns like the cold. But only for a while. Then it gets inside you and starts to fill you up, and after a while you don’t have the strength to fight it. It’s easier just to sit down or go to sleep. They say you don’t feel any pain toward the end. First you go weak and drowsy, and everything starts to fade, and then it’s like sinking into a sea of warm milk. Peaceful, like.”
“Such eloquence, Gared,” Ser Waymar observed. “I never suspected you had it in you.”
“Have you drawn any watches this past week, Will?”
“Yes, m’lord,” There never was a week when he did not draw a dozen bloody watches. What was the man driving at?
“And how did you find the Wall?”
“Weeping,” Will said, frowning. He saw it clear enough, now that the lordling had pointed it out. “They couldn’t have froze. Not if the Wall was weeping. It wasn’t cold enough.”
Royce nodded. “Bright lad. We’ve had a few light frosts this past week, and a quick flurry of snow now and then, but surely no cold fierce enough to kill grown men. Men clad in fur and leather, let me remind you, with shelter near at hand, and the means of making fire.” The knight’s smile was cocksure. “Will, lead us there. I would see these dead men for myself.”
And then there was nothing to be done for it. The order had been given, and honour bound them to obey.
Will went in front, his shaggy little garron picking the way carefully through the undergrowth. A light snow had fallen the night before, and there were stones and roots and hidden sinks lying just under its crust, waiting for the careless and the unwary. Ser Waymar Royce came next, his great black destrier snorting impatiently. The warhorse was the wrong mount for ranging, but try and tell that to the lordling. Gared brought up the rear. The old man-at-arms muttered to himself as he rode.
Twilight deepened. The cloudless sky turned a deep purple, the colour of an old bruise, then faded to black. The stars began to come out. A half-moon rose. Will was grateful for the light.
Somewhere off in the wood a wolf howled.
Will pulled his garron over beneath an ancient gnarled ironwood and dismounted.
“Why are you stopping?” Ser Waymar asked.
“Best go the rest of the way on foot, m’lord. It’s just over that ridge.”
“There’s something wrong here,” Gared muttered.
The young knight gave him a disdainful smile. “Is there?”
“Can’t you feel it?” Gared asked. “Listen to the darkness.”
Will could feel it. Four years in the Night’s Watch, and he had never been so afraid. What was it?
“Wind. Trees rustling. A wolf. Which sound is it that unmans you so, Gared?” When Gared did not answer, Royce slid gracefully from his saddle. He tied the destrier securely to a low-hanging limb, well away from the other horses, and drew his longsword from its sheath. Jewels glittered in its hilt, and the moonlight ran down the shining steel. It was a splendid weapon, castle-forged, and new-made from the look of it. Will doubted it had ever been swung in anger.
Will threaded their way through a thicket, then started up the slope to the low ridge where he had found his vantage point under a sentinel tree. Under the thin crust of snow, the ground was damp and muddy, slick footing, with rocks and hidden roots to trip you up. Will made no sound as he climbed. Behind him, he heard the soft metallic slither of the lordling’s ringtail, the rustle of leaves, and muttered curses as reaching branches grabbed at his longsword and tugged on his splendid sable cloak.
Will’s heart stopped in his chest. For a moment he dared not breathe. Moonlight shone down on the clearing, the ashes of the fire pit, the snow-covered lean-to, the great rock, the little half-frozen stream. Everything was just as it had been a few hours ago.
They were gone. All the bodies were gone.
Royce looked down at the empty clearing. “Your dead men seem to have moved camp, Will.”
Will’s voice abandoned him. He groped for words that did not come. It was not possible. His eyes swept back and forth over the abandoned campsite.
Ser Waymar looked him over with open disapproval. “I am not going back to Castle Black a failure on my first ranging. We will find these men.”
Will turned away, wordless. There was no use to argue. The wind was moving. It cut right through him. He saw movement from the corner of his eye. Pale shapes gliding through the wood. He turned his head, glimpsed a white shadow in the darkness. Then it was gone. Branches stirred gently in the wind, scratching at one another with wooden fingers. Will opened his mouth to call down a warning, and the words seemed to freeze in his throat. Perhaps he was wrong. Perhaps it had only been a bird, a reflection on the snow, some trick of the moonlight. What had he seen, after all?
Ser Waymar was turning in a slow circle, suddenly wary, his sword in hand. He must have felt them, as Will felt them. There was nothing to see. It was cold.
A shadow emerged from the dark of the wood. Tall, it was, and gaunt and hard as old bones, with flesh pale as milk. Its armour seemed to change colour as it moved; here it was white as new-fallen snow, there black as shadow, everywhere dappled with the deep grey-green of the trees. The patterns ran like moonlight on water with every step it took.
The wind had stopped. It was very cold.
It slid forward on silent feet. Its eyes blue, deeper and bluer than any human eye, a blue that burned like ice.
A scream echoed through the forest night, and Will thought of the brave Ser Waymar, a boy no longer, but a man of the Night’s Watch. His muscles cramping and his fingers numb with cold, Will ran through the trees.