Val waited by the gate in the predawn cold, wrapped up in a bearskin cloak so large it might well have fit Sam. Beside her was a garron, saddled and bridled, a shaggy grey with one white eye. Mully and Dolorous Edd stood with her, a pair of unlikely guards. Their breath frosted in the cold black air.
“You gave her a blind horse?” Jon said, incredulous. “He’s only half-blind, m’lord,” offered Mully. “Elsewise he’s sound enough.” He patted the garron on the neck.
“The horse may be half-blind, but I am not,” said Val. “I know where I must go.”
“My lady, you do not have to do this. The risk – “
” – is mine, Lord Snow. And I am no southron lady but a woman of the free folk. I know the forest better than all your black-cloaked rangers. It holds no ghosts for me.”
I hope not. Jon was counting on that, trusting that Val could succeed
where Black Jack Bulwer and his companions had failed. She need fear no harm from the free folk, he hoped… but both of them knew too well that wildlings were not the only ones waiting in the woods. “You have sufficient food?”
“Hard bread, hard cheese, oat cakes, salt cod, salt beef, salt mutton, and a skin of sweet wine to rinse all that salt out of my mouth. I will not die of hunger.”
“Then it’s time you were away.”
“You have my word, Lord Snow. I will return, with Tormund or without him.” Val glanced at the sky. The moon was but half-full. “Look for me on the first day of the full moon.”
“I will.” Do not fail me, he thought, or Stannis will have my head. “Do I have your word that you will keep our princess closely?” the king had said, and Jon had promised that he would. Val is no princess, though. I told him that half a hundred times. It was a feeble sort of evasion, a sad rag wrapped around his wounded word. His father would never have approved. I am the sword that guards the realm of men, Jon reminded himself, and in the end, that must be worth more than one man’s honor.
The road beneath the Wall was as dark and cold as the belly of an ice dragon and as twisty as a serpent. Dolorous Edd led them through with a torch in hand. Mully had the keys for the three gates, where bars of black iron as thick as a man’s arm closed off the passage. Spearmen at each gate knuckled their foreheads at Jon Snow but stared openly at Val and her garron.
When they emerged north of the Wall, through a thick door made of freshly hewn green wood, the wildling princess paused for a moment to gaze out across the snow-covered field where King Stannis had won his battle. Beyond, the haunted forest waited, dark and silent. The light of the half-moon turned Val’s honey-blond hair a pale silver and left her cheeks as white as snow. She took a deep breath. “The air tastes sweet.”
“My tongue is too numb to tell. All I can taste is cold.”
“Cold?” Val laughed lightly. “No. When it is cold it will hurt to breathe. When the Others come…”
The thought was a disquieting one. Six of the rangers Jon had sent out were still missing. It is too soon. They may yet be back. But another part of him insisted, They are dead, every man of them. You sent them out to die, and you are doing the same to Val. “Tell Tormund what I’ve said.”
“He may not heed your words, but he will hear them.” Val kissed him lightly on the cheek. “You have my thanks, Lord Snow. For the half-blind horse, the salt cod, the free air. For hope.”
Their breath mingled, a white mist in the air.