When he heard the order, Ser Alliser’s mouth twisted into a semblance of a smile, but his eyes remained as cold and hard as flint. “So the bastard boy sends me out to die.”
” Die, ” cried Mormont’s raven. ” Die, die, die. “
You are not helping. Jon swatted the bird away. “The bastard boy is sending you out to range. To find our foes and kill them if need be. You are skilled with a blade. You were master-at-arms, here and at Eastwatch.”
Thorne touched the hilt of his longsword. “Aye. I have squandered a third of my life trying to teach the rudiments of swordplay to churls, muttonheads, and knaves. Small good that will do me in those woods.”
“Dywen will be with you, and another seasoned ranger.”
“We’ll learn you what you need t’ know, ser,” Dywen told Thorne, cackling. “Teach you how t’ wipe your highborn arse with leaves,
just like a proper ranger.”
Kedge Whiteye laughed at that, and Black Jack Bulwer spat. Ser Alliser only said, “You would like me to refuse. Then you could hack off my head, same as you did for Slynt. I’ll not give you that pleasure, bastard. You’d best pray that it’s a wildling blade that kills me, though. The ones the Others kill don’t stay dead… and they remember. I’m coming back, Lord Snow.”
“I pray you do.” Jon would never count Ser Alliser Thorne amongst his friends, but he was still a brother. No one ever said you had to like your brothers.
It was no easy thing to send men into the wild, knowing that the chances were good that they might never return. They are all seasoned men, Jon told himself… but his uncle Benjen and his rangers had been seasoned men as well, and the haunted forest had swallowed them up without a trace. When two of them finally came straggling back to the Wall, it had been as wights. Not for the first time, or the last, Jon Snow found himself wondering what had become of Benjen Stark. Perhaps the rangers will come upon some sign of them, he told himself, never truly believing it.
Dywen would lead one ranging, Black Jack Bulwer and Kedge Whit-eye the other two. They at least were eager for the duty. “Feels good to have a horse under me again,” Dywen said at the gate, sucking on his wooden teeth. “Begging your pardon, m’lord, but we were all o’ us getting splinters up our arses from sitting about.” No man in Castle Black knew the woods as well as Dywen did, the trees and streams, the plants that could be eaten, the ways of predator and prey. Thorne is in better hands than he deserves.
Jon watched the riders go from atop the Wall – three parties, each of three men, each carrying a pair of ravens. From on high their garrons looked no larger than ants, and Jon could not tell one ranger from another. He knew them, though. Every name was graven on his heart. Eight good men, he thought, and one… well, we shall see.
When the last of the riders had disappeared into the trees, Jon Snow rode the winch cage down with Dolorous Edd. A few scattered snowflakes were falling as they made their slow descent, dancing on the gusty wind. One followed the cage down, drifting just beyond the bars. It was falling faster than they were descending and from time to time would vanish beneath them. Then a gust of wind would catch it and push it upward once again. Jon could have reached through the bars and caught it if he had wished.
“I had a frightening dream last night, m’lord,” Dolorous Edd confessed. “You were my steward, fetching my food and cleaning up my leavings.