After the king’s return, it took a few hours till they found time to speak, and they went up the Wall. The wind was icy cold and it snowed heavily, but neither of them cared.
„I didn’t think I would see you alive again, Lord Snow.”
„Neither did I, your grace. After that letter…”
„You wanted to rush to Winterfell and kill Ramsay. I know.” The king shook his head but there was a little hint of a smile in his eyes. „I’ve never thought that what I offered you so many times in vain, you’d do just after a liar’s letter.”
„It was the last drop, my lord. I was foolish enough not to think, although Tormund told me right then it could be a trick.”
Stannis’s deep blue eyes met the Lord Commander’s, and both left their questions unsaid.
„I left a boy here and I find a man. A man reborn. A true leader whom everyone follows.”
Now it was Jon’s turn to smile.
„It wasn’t like that just a few weeks ago. I still don’t know what force brought me back. Lady Melisandre says she doesn’t know either. She’s very distressed ever since.”
Stannis turned away from the little watchfire and looked north, but all they could see there was a silent, endless forest covered in snow. Too silent.
„Maybe it was your gods, the gods of the North. And now she began to doubt. It is a refreshing change.”
He looked back at Jon whose hair was cover with a thin layer of snow, just like his own cape. He shook it off and for a moment he had the urge to sweep it off Jon’s locks too before it freezes, but stopped himself. That was something one could do with his own child, but Jon was not his son, no matter how he would have liked a son like him.
„What did you do to the traitors who killed you?”
„Nothing. They did what they thought best for the Watch, and they were more or less right. I broke my oath when I wanted to get into the war. I know they won’t try it again, and we have no men to waste. The true enemy is beyond the Wall.”
„You’re too merciful” Stannis said „but they belong under your command. It is for you to decide.”
„How about Mance Rayder, my lord?”
Stannis ground his teeth.
„You three made a fool out of me. But I won’t burn him twice. I need this man and Melisandre needs him too. No matter how I hate to let him live, without him and Manderly we would have had a much harder battle.”
Jon felt more than relieved. Whoever said iron wouldn’t bend was wrong. Sometimes it did, even if just a little. It was good for a start.
Now that the North was peaceful, with Lord Manderly’s men and king’s men keeping Winterfell, they could concentrate on their real enemy. There were occasional ravens from the South, telling how the civil war raged on, with a pretender who called himself Aegon the Sixth besieging King’s Landing, a plague raging, and the lioness at large with her giant bodyguard.
„Fools” Stannis said at such news. „I would like to see their faces when the Others show up, but as long as we breathe, they won’t reach the South.”
They didn’t come yet. No ravens from Hardhome either; everyone there must have been dead. The realm beyond the Wall was covered in snow and ice, and the night lasted longer and longer with every day.
„They will come when we run out of lamp oil” said Dolorous Edd. „My father always said the trouble never comes alone. He was usually right.”
The day came when the sun only came up for an hour, and it was that day when Davos Seaworth arrived with a spearwife, a boy, a direwolf and an escort of Manderly’s men.
Jon knew Manderly sent for his little brother, and that Bran and Rickon were alive, but he only dared to really believe it now that he could embrace the boy.
„Do you remember me?”
„Of course. And Shaggy remembers Ghost too.”
The king watched them and their wolves who ran around and played in the snow.
„They have been separated for too long” he said to Davos.
„Yes, my king.”
„No more sending you away” Stannis said. „It seems every time you go on an errand, someone wants to behead you. You have a talent to piss off lords.”
„They don’t like to hear the truth, your grace.”
Stannis and Jon wanted to send Rickon back to Winterfell, but the boy didn’t even want to hear about it.
„Wights? Shaggy will eat wights. I’m not leaving! I want to be here with you and Davos and Shireen. We play she’s my mama here, and she would be lonely if I went away.”
It was this that convinced them to let him stay. The kids were so happy to finally have a friend, and when the king saw his daughter laugh and her eyes shine, he couldn’t separate them. She didn’t even fear the big black wolf while most of the Watch and king’s men and queen’s men avoided him.
And while the children were happy, the adults looked at the sky to see if there would be a glimpse of the sun.
On the day it didn’t come up, Alliser Thorne arrived back and told them there was an army, tens of thousands, following at a few hours distance. He didn’t have time to tell how he survived his ranging, and there were three horn calls at midnight.
The Others have come at last.
Jon and Stannis watched as they came out of the Haunted Forest, pale, slender, tall figures among an army of wights, some of them riding dead horses and elks, ice spiders or even dead mammoths. They looked like as if they were made of ice. The defenders shot fire arrows among them, hoping to make the forest catch fire and burn them in great numbers, but frozen up trees were hard to set on fire.
They kept the dragonglass for closer fight, and by now they tried to take out the wights first, as they were easier to kill with fire.
Stannis didn’t have his flaming sword on him now, just good ordinary steel.
„It’s not very effective” he said to Jon quietly. „She likes it and my men are in awe, but all it does is looking good. I prefer a real sword for a real fight.”
Jon, despite the horrors closing in, could not suppress a smile. This sounded so typically Stannis.
He fired arrow after arrow till the king took up a bow himself.
„Let’s see how I can do with it.”
Quite well for a man who hasn’t practiced lately, Jon thought, as he watched a dead mammoth catching fire and the Other on it jumping off.
But when days passed and the enemy still came and came, they grew broodier. Neither of them slept and the wights never ran out. The Others, however, mostly stayed out of the arrows’ reach, clearly waiting for their creatures to wear out the humans. They would attack when there would be no resistance anymore.
Jon was so tired that one time he nearly fell off the Wall, and he would have if the king didn’t catch him and pulled him back to safety.
It seemed to him that Stannis held him a few moments more than absolutely necessary, but then he let go and ordered more hot wine from Edd in a casual voice.
„We’ll all fall asleep standing, my lord, and then they’ll come and next time we wake up, we’re all wights!” said Edd, optimistic as ever.
„Edd, don’t you have wine to bring?”
„Aye aye, my lord. In a moment!”
Once again they were left alone, at least far enough from the nearest men.
„Thank you, my king” Jon whispered, not even realizing how and when your grace turned into my king for him.
„I wouldn’t like to see you attacking me, Lord Snow” the king said. „Better keep you alive.”
The Wall still held, but the magic was weakening. All the Northern lords and their men were now here, fighting side by side with the Watch and the wildlings, and sometimes there were pauses in the attack. Some of the Others left, maybe to find more wights, or wake ancient, evil creatures. They had a little time to catch their breath.
„We should make a sacrifice” Melisandre couldn’t let her favourite idea go. „R’hllor would look upon us with more grace.”
„And who would you burn, woman? You’re not touching Mance Rayder, he already killed two Others. Others, not wights.”
„The Greyjoys have king’s blood.”
„They’re my hostages, not criminals. And they offered me their people’s alliance if I help them to take out that pirate who calls himself king. And frankly, I’m tired of this ’king’s blood’ bullshit.”
„But my king…”
„I tell you what I told your servants, pray harder.”
And he ordered the guards – Northmen, wildlings and his own men – to keep Asha and Theon safe. They fought up the Wall with them, although the man was weak and ill, he could still send arrows at the enemy.
„I used to be better” he said to Mance.
„As long as you hit them, it will do.”
The wildling grew a little respect for Theon since he saw him in battle. They often fought here side by side, and after they heard Melisandre’s plea – she wasn’t polite enough to make it out of earshot – they stuck together even more.
„I’ll throw that bitch off the Wall before she can burn any of us” Mance said.
Thick mist came over the snow-covered lands, and the Others were back with new forces, even more than before. Where there had been a few dozen controlling wights stood now thousands, and it was so cold some of the men who fell asleep for a few minutes never woke up.
„My lord, you must allow a sacrifice” Melisandre said in despair. „I can only make so much fire. They’ll break through.”
„I said no” Stannis snarled at her. „I will not kill any of the men who fight at my side. It is not miracles that would save us but our own weapons. Stop bothering me.”
„Is this your last word?”
„It is.” He turned his back and lit another arrow.
Jon saw, however, saw the insane light in her eyes and didn’t like it. But she left without further arguing.
Davos watched from above as the red woman whispered on the courtyard with some queen’s men, the queen herself and talked to a black brother who pointed towards the Great Hall. She headed across the yard. The men who had their short rests gathered there.
When he saw her coming out with Alliser Thorne and leading him towards her chamber, he made his way to Stannis and Jon.
„Your grace, my lord, watch out. She’s up to something.”
„She cannot do much alone” Jon said. „Dozens of men stand between her and her targets.”
Davos could have argued with that, but he kept his thoughts to himself.
„She was with that Thorne, Lord Snow.”
„Thorne… why couldn’t the Others take him?” Jon seemed frustrated. „I thought that out there he would realize who the real enemy is and that petty rivalries are meaningless. But he never seems to learn.”
„He soon will” Stannis said and made a gesture toward the army of Others. „Davos, please stay. Why have you been avoiding us lately?”
„I… there was no time, your grace.”
„Lies do not become you.”
Davos looked at Jon and did not answer. I didn’t want to bother you.
„I will stay if my king wishes so” he said finally.
And together they stood as an Other rode up a nearby hill, accompanied by a wight who had once been a black brother. He spoke in his unearthly language, and the wight translated in a loud voice they all heard.
„Our king is coming to fight your false king and take you all our slaves!”
„Tell him to bugger himself!” Tormund, the loudest man on the Wall, shouted back.
There was an uproar of laughter and their failing spirit returned. Now that the enemy has spoken, it seemed less mysterious.
The mist became thicker and thicker, and when hours passed, there was another break in the attack. They ate something, not even recognizing what it was. Jon looked around and he couldn’t see the men who stood at the next post, Tormund, Mance, the Greyjoys and on the other side Edd, Satin and Leathers. He noticed that Alliser Thorne, whose pause had ended an hour ago, didn’t come back, but in this fog he couldn’t think of sending someone to find him. Besides nobody missed the man.
The King was standing at the edge, resting his strong and hardened hands on his sword’s hilt, like a statue of the old Kings of Winter. He belongs here. He might have been born on the South but in his soul he is a Northerner.
Davos had been dozing, sitting down with his back against the ice but suddenly woke up. He stepped next to Jon, reaching for his sword.
Jon looked at the torches and the watchfires. The flames were flickering and then went out, but there was an unnatural, pale light over the Wall. Davos had often seen a similar phenomenon on shipmasts before a great storm, but this was not the same. It oozed dark magic.
They drew their swords at the same time and even Stannis turned around but they stood in the way of what was coming. Davos knew it the moment before he saw it. He didn’t think, he just pushed his king to the icy floor of the Wall. He felt something cold biting in his left shoulder, but in a heartbeat Longclaw slew the shadow. They heard a terrible high scream and the creature of darkness dissolved. It could not bear the touch of Valyrian steel.
„What was this?” Jon asked with a wild look, still keeping his sword ready to strike at anything.
Far below, a woman’s screams and curses echoed the shadow’s death cry. The fires lit up again and the pale light disappeared.
Stannis helped Davos up. „You’re bleeding.”
„It’s only a…”
Stannis glared at him before he could finish and he tore off his scarf to bandage him. „Eddison!”
Dolorous Edd rushed towards them.
„My lords, are you all right?”
„Fetch my maester at once. Lord Davos is hurt.” He turned to Jon. „I’ll go and deal with her.”
„Let me go with you, my king.”
„No, this is between me and her. You’ll see us. The mists are clearing up. Please, look after Davos.”
Their eyes followed him anxiously as he descended, and soon they were joined by Mance and Tormund.
„What the fuck was that shadow?” Tormund asked.
„It’s how she kills” Davos said. „I have seen her birth one before.” He was shivering. „Stannis shouldn’t go down alone! Lord Snow, help me. We must be with him, no matter what he said.”
They hurried down the stairs, to find the king and the red woman in the courtyard, with the men forming a big circle around them.
„You should be dead!” She cried. „The ultimate sacrifice. Slain like your brother and that stubborn old knight.”
A cold fury burned in the king’s blue eyes.
„So this is how you killed my brother? Using my own shadow? You never told!”
„You never asked!” Melisandre shouted. „You would rather not know!”
„And now you thought you can get rid of me? Using that fool Thorne? What did you promise him? That you’d give him Lord Snow, free to kill?” He draw his sword. „This is real steel, not your toy sword, woman. Taste it.”
The priestess backed away and then closed her eyes, concentrating hard. Flames lit up around the king. Both Jon and Davos let out a cry of terror but Stannis didn’t even flinch.
„Your fire is as fake as your magic, your god and yourself.”
The flames went out as soon as his clothes burnt away, and he stood there unscathed, apart from the old battle scars he bore. But his sword remained aflame.
Melisandre stared at him in disbelief.
„You are really… the true Azor Ahai…”
„And you are a fraud.” He stepped closer and grabbed her ruby. „Show your true self.”
He ripped the gleaming ruby off her and she screamed.
What was left was an unremarkable woman in her fifties, much shorter than she used to be, with a flaming slave tattoo on her cheeks.
Stannis thrust the sword through her. She was dead before she hit the ground and her body fell to ashes and dust, scattered in the wind.
„Somebody give me clothes” the king said, unimpressed. „I don’t like to run around naked in this cold.”
Thorne died when Jon slayed his shadow, he bled out while dreaming of murder. Nobody mourned him. Queen Selyse was put in house arrest.
Davos could not feel or use his left arm, and the cold didn’t leave him, but he said he could at least still wield a sword and dismissed Edd’s concerns. He insisted on continuing to fight.
The King of the Others came next day – although it was hard to tell when days shifted – and they broke through the Wall at one place. The fought them all night long, and Stannis had a desperate duel with their king, for hours and hours. Ghost and Shaggydog took their share of killing, and at dawn – they knew it was dawn because for the first time in weeks, there was a dim light in the east – another direwolf appeared and threw himself into the fight along with his brothers.
Summer, Jon thought, and an army of ravens and wolves followed. They were attacking the wights. Somebody must have controlled them, but even the most powerful warg Jon knew, Varamyr, could only control six animals.
When Stannis killed the King of the Others, the sun had risen, and the remainders of the enemy flew. They grew weak in the light.
It was the first time they forced them to retreat. The men cheered.
„Do not think it’s all over” the king warned them, „but today we will have a feast. We all deserve it.”
And the sun stayed up till afternoon.
At the evening, Bran, Hodor and Meera arrived, accompanied by Coldhands who did not pass the Wall, although he could now that the magic broke.
„They don’t like my kind there” he said to Bran.
„You were one of them.”
„I do not belong with the living. Farewell, Lord Stark.”
„Arya is coming too” Bran said. „I talked to her in my dreams. She’s back on Westeros and I helped her to find her wolf. Soon we’ll have another army.”
„My last soothsayer was rather dysfunctional” Stannis said. „Let’s hope you’re right, young man.”
He was right. In a fortnight, Arya arrived with Nymeria and her pack, and an elder man whom Jon hadn’t met before but recognized from his sigil: the Blackfish.
„It’s good to see you all together” Stannis said to Jon. „I wish I had siblings like yours.”
„We’re still missing Sansa.”
„Not for much longer” the Blackfish said. „I heard very interesting news from the Eyrie.”
Bran, who had been watching Davos for a while, ordered Hodor to bring him to the knight.
„Why didn’t you tell me earlier about your injury?”
„It’s not that bad. I’m alive and more or less all right.”
„You were touched by a shadow. I would not call that all right, good ser. Let me have a look.”
The wound was seemingly healed, although it left a nasty scar, but it felt all icy.
„I am not a maester, Ser Davos” the boy said „but I think I know who can help you.”
„Why did you tell me you were all right?” Stannis never was angrier. „You took that damned stab to save me and then you just have to play martyr and say nothing! You could have died!”
„I thought it would heal sooner or later…”
„Sooner or later! If I’m really Azor Ahai, I hope I can do as little as to heal my faithful Hand!”
They stared at each other, furious blue eyes and soft brown ones, and Stannis touched his shoulder. He had no idea how this was supposed to work, but the little greenseer was sure it would. He tried to remember when he resisted the red woman’s fire. How did he do it? It just came. And it was some sort of fire he had to pass now, to exorcise the cold, evil force that was tormenting his friend.
Davos was smiling, and his trusting, longing look was what finally let Stannis find the fire within himself. The cold was gone.
„I can feel it now” Davos said,and his king caressed his shortened fingers. „Yes. I can feel it.”
The spent a long evening together, not even talking, just watching each other.
The Others kept attacking but now for shorter periods, with longer and longer breaks. They wondered how many more dead can they find north of the Wall, but t seemed not enough. The siege was still hard but the worst was over. Bran had even found time to teach his siblings how to get closer not just to their wolves, but other animals. None of them was as good as him but they were all talented.
„Walk with me, Lord Snow” Stannis said on a calm day. Now the sun was back, pale gold and far away, and although it was still very cold, it did not feel as unnatural as with Others near. They went for a walk atop the Wall. „I got a raven from your lady sister.”
„What does she say?”
„She’s the Lady of the Vale now, and marching North. The Lord Protector met an unfortunate… accident.”
Was that a smirk? Jon wondered.
„I think I like Lady Sansa.” The King said, putting a hand on Jon’s shoulder. „She knows how to reward traitors.”
„When I last met her, she was a little girl, dreaming of knights and romance.”
„Well, her sworn shield is definitely not a knight.”
„Just like my king is definitely not an usual hero from the songs, but a hero nevertheless.”
„Don’t you dare to flatter me, Jon Snow!”
But his death glare was not really strict.
Two more months passed till the Vale lords arrived, and with their help they wiped out the rest of the Others. The Starks returned to Winterfell but Bran remained on the Wall to renovate the broken parts and reweave the magic with the help of the Children.
„There is still a war to fight in the south” Stannis said. „But once I secure the realm, I will send for you, Lord Snow. You saved my life more than once in this fight, and I would always feel safe if you were in my Kingsguard.”
„But Sire, my vows to the Watch…”
„Your vows were taken till death. If I recall, you already died once. I demand your second life, my lord.”
And Jon knew he was ready to give it to him.
When he got news in the next years, sometimes he wished he could be at his king’s side. Stannis, with the help of the North and the Vale defeated the pirate king, and Lady Asha swore fealty to him. The united forces took over the weakened South. The dragons and the roses bleed each other out, and the lions were as good as dead. Stannis allowed Tommen to live but exiled him from Westeros, along with the Kingslayer who now people also called Queenslayer. Jaime Lannister took his son to Lys, they said.
Heads fell, but only the heads of those who deserved it. Mace Tyrell, the false Aegon, the High Sparrow, the Merryweathers and Qyburn. King’s Landing, however, had a new executioner. Ilyn Payne met his fate earlier, somewhere in the Riverlands. The Faith lost its power and their independency became only titular.
Not much was left from the Kingsguard as some of them fled, the undead giant was slain by Sandor Clegane, Ser Boros died of a stroke caused by too much drinking, and Ser Meryn was found dead under mysterious circumstances. They found a strange coin beside him.
„If only Barristan Selmy didn’t take the wrong side” Stannis said at a quiet evening when him and Davos sat in his study which was now as puritanic as if he would still be just a lord. „He was misguided but an honourable man, and a great knight.”
„Would you have spared him, my king?” Davos asked.
„He saved me from making that choice.”
Songs would tell about the old knight’s last stand, they both knew.
„We will need to rebuild the Kingsguard, just like all of this realm. And I have the right men to help me. You as Hand, and soon Jon Snow as Lord Commander.”
„You would need a queen too, my lord. A real queen.”
Stannis made the new High Septon annul his marriage as soon as he was elected, for his queen committed high treason. He did not forget Selyse gave her blessing to Melisandre’s plan to kill him. Of course, if she was Queen Regent for Shireen, she would have all the power she wanted, and the red woman as many sacrifices as she needed.
„Too bad for you it didn’t work, my lady” the king said coldly. „I will let you keep your head because I don’t want to make my daughter an orphan. But you are banished from my court.”
Now that Davos suggested him another marriage, he was deep in thought.
„But who, Davos? The noble houses lack free daughters, and Lady Stark only has eyes for her sworn shield. I will not take a woman who already loves another, just look at what it cost to Robert and all of us.”
„Why don’t you take a wildling wife, my lord? It would seal our peace.”
„A wildling?” Stannis looked at him suspiciously. „If I wouldn’t know you better, I would think you and Mance Rayder conspired behind my back to marry me off. It is Val, isn’t it? But she has no love for our ways. She’s proud, unyielding and has no tolerance for annoying people. She would hate the court.”
„My king, you two would have much in common then.”
„Well, maybe you are right. A queen who knows nothing of intrigue and doesn’t lie sound like something new.”
When Lord Snow, Val and their escort arrived, it was already summer and the land, although it bore the marks of war, began to renew.
„My lady, I can only hope you won’t cut my throat on our wedding night” Stannis greeted Val.
„I hope you will not call me your lady when we’re alone” she replied in her usual waspy style.
Tormund, who came with them, elbowed Jon in the side.
„Trust me, crow, these two will be fun to watch. Mance sent me here to guard her, and man, do I like this place. It would only need a few she-bears.”
„Marry a Mormont, old friend, and you will be content.”
„They are too damn far away now. I should be content with your Southern whores. Bet they never saw a member as big as mine.”
Stannis talked to Jon privately that evening.
„Sometimes I miss your Wall” he said. „Did your brother rebuild it?”
„It is stronger now than it was” Jon said. „The children of the forest had woven new spells. They say the Others are gone, but who knows what else sleeps far North? Not even Bran’s trees grow in the Land of Always Winter.”
„Jon, I offered to legitimize you a few times already. Now I offer it again before I make you a knight and the new leader of the Kingsguard.”
„Sire, I think I’d keep the Snow. I got used to it for twenty years. Tyrion Lannister once told me to never forget who I was.”
His king’s blue eyes looked at him with respect.
„Then so be it.”
At the wedding ceremony, Ser Jon stood at his side in all white, with Longclaw and Ghost always ready to guard his king.