The darkling sky reeled with ravens, and dead men stirred in the trees below.
The ranger stood watching the skittering and rustling, the shadows half-seen before vanishing again, the movements that seemed no more than the brush of the sighing wind. It had snowed before dawn, and would do so again before the next one. The air was laden with the bone-deep chill of the coming blizzard, but the ranger did not feel it, no more than he felt pain, or hunger, or love, or fear. For close on three moons' turns he had guarded this gateway in the side of the hill, though perhaps he did not need to. The cleft was woven thickly about with old wards, workings of great power, bronze and iron and blood, that kept the dead men out. That kept him out. He still had his speech and wits and faint fragments of his soul and memory – but nothing from before he was born again in the snows. Nothing from when he had been a living man.
Nothing save his duty.
They were under there, all of them. The broken boy and the giant and the two green-eyed crannogmen, the ones he had led so far across the wild northern wastes, first on his elk and then when the elk had died, afoot. Further beyond the Wall than even he had ranged, back when he'd been alive. To see the man under the hill, this hill. The greenseer, the three-eyed crow, and the children. The children of the forest, the guardians that kept the barrow warded against things like him, and the things that lurked in the woods below.
The ranger laid one cold black hand on his sword. This he remembered the most clearly of all: before the snows, his duty, his life, his vow was to kill these things. Slow shambling wights that could stagger up the length of a man's greatsword and twist his head with their soft pale hands, twist until his neck broke and warm blood gushed out. You could cut the arm off the thing, and still they'd keep coming. The only way to do for them was fire.
Yet wights were simply reanimated corpses, ordinary men. It was their necromancers who were the true horror. Sword-slim and graceful as knives, armor of milkglass and starshadow, ice-blades that shattered every mortal steel, tall as terror and eyes, blue blue eyes that held no earthly soul. The white walkers. The Others. The very reason the Wall had been raised, imbued with spells and wards a hundred, a thousand times more powerful than these. The shield that guards the realms of men. It had never been to guard from the free folk, the wildlings, though many of his brothers had thought so. The wildlings were only men. Rougher and more uncouth than the usual, but still men.
It was wights and Others both that gathered below, the ranger knew. Night after night they sought to see if the way was still barred to them, and night after night – thus far – it was. The power of the children was the only thing as old and implacable as the power of the Walkers, still too green, too living to suffer the touch of death. The children had endured the coming of the Andals and the Faith and thousands of years of persecution by free folk and northmen alike. Surely they had the strength to endure thousands of years more.
Yet the barrier was weakening.
The ranger did not know how, or why. Even when he lived, he had not been a man for dusty scrolls and the quarreling of long-dead maesters. He did not care from where or whence or why the Others came; it was only his duty to hunt them. Yet every day, he could stand slightly closer to the cleft in the rock than before, no longer as violently thrust away. The power of the children was strong, aye, and in the Long Night they had been fronted with attacks ten times as savage, ten times as long. And held.
But this was a different age of the world. And the cold winds were rising.
By long habit, the ranger pulled the tattered remnants of his black cloak around his shoulders, adjusted the scarf that he wore always over his nose and mouth. Any living man would be shivering violently, arms buried in armpits and ice encrusting the muffler from his breath. But no mist gusted from the ranger's breath, for he had none. For the best. No living man could stand here as sentinel. No living man could stand.
Above, the ravens continued to screech, winged shadows against the oncoming twilight. The ranger did not want to believe half the things they told him. They whispered of dragons in the stormlands, of dead men in a red castle, of a dying man in a cell of ice, of a sword of fire quenched and two kings in cages, of a monster in human skin that stalked the stone halls of winter. Darkness, they called. Darkness and death.
There was one. . . the dying man in the ice cell. For no reason he could articulate, the ranger felt that he was supposed to remember something about that. Who was the man? Why was he dying? And ice, a cell of ice – did he dream it, or had there been such places on the Wall? Aye, there had been. They were reserved only for the lowest of the low: oathbreakers, attempted deserters, captured wildling raiders, turncloaks and traitors. Yet the dying man wore a cloak as black as the ranger's own.
Treachery, the ranger thought, but could not say how or what he knew. The bloated crimson sun was almost gone, and then the assault would begin in earnest. He had no fire; he could not kindle it; it would consume him as readily as them. Yet he still had his longsword, and his courage. And his bone-deep conviction that he could not allow the dead to pass. That the boy and the giant and the crannogmen, down there in the hill's heart with the children and the three-eyed crow, must be defended at all costs.
The ranger drew his sword. The wintry steel caught a flash, bright as a beacon. Well, no worry about giving away his position. Every day the sun came later and left earlier, and partly he was glad for it. For it hurt him as well, though not as much as the wights. I cannot last forever. If even the Others could be destroyed – by fire, or by dragonglass – then the ranger was under no delusions that his afterlife would be eternal. By the sun or by fire, by blade or by sorcery, by strength or by treachery, the unholy animus that knitted his bones and sinew would unravel. And the wards would weaken, and shatter. And the hungry dark would swarm under the hill, and all would be at an end.
Not while there is breath in my body, the ranger would have thought once. Yet there was not. He knew nothing of his resurrection, why he had come back like this and not as a wight. That had never been his task.
The twilight faded to black. The wind began to pick up. A keen, and then a howl. Heavy anvils of cloud closed over the waning moon. The first flakes began to fall, mounding on the ranger's shoulders and hood. He brushed them off, though not from any fear of the cold. When he was a living man, he'd known that if you built a shelter deep in the woods, a heavy layer of snow would hold the warmth in, save you from freezing to death. It had been so long ago.
The stars began to come out, and so did they. Rank upon rank they scrambled up the hill, black fingers clawing into the fresh snow. Blue eyes gleamed like sapphire stars. Here and there he could see the silvery sheen as an Other rippled like silk, undulating up the rocky spur with fey and lethal beauty. More and more they came. There seemed to be no end, climbing blindly over each over, bare feet pad-pad-padding. Ice swirled and lashed and bit, thousand-year-old trees bent and groaned, and of the grove of weirwoods above only the faintest blood-red stain of their leaves were visible. This storm would kill an army of living men, and it is still only autumn.
When the first ones reached him, the ranger began to fight. He could hear the thrumming of the wards in the stones, took care not to come too close himself. Those wights who did were thrown bodily back down the hill. Soon there was an array of disembodied limbs crab-walking undaunted up the hill. Frozen black blood coagulated on the snow.
The ranger never needed to stop for a respite, felt no thirst or hunger. The watcher on the walls, the sword in the darkness. He had said those words once, and others, before a weirwood much like the ones towering above him. Old gods. North of the Wall, the only gods. The ranger did not now believe in gods. Which was understandable, considering. What sort of gods would make this? Make him? Nay. He'd stay here until the dawn, and fight. His sword was not ordinary steel, could shear through the fell weavings which held the creatures together. My duty. Not even death could stop him. Another memory, too faint to be put in words, something his brother had said once. But had it been a black brother or a blood brother? His blood brother, there had been two, something he must remember – but no, he must fight –
And then he saw the direwolf.
The broken boy's beast. Warg. Skinchanger, that was what he was. Could cast aside his body with its useless legs and run as one with his great grey golden-eyed wolf, the wolf that was called – the ranger found it ironic – Summer. Summer had not gone down into the children's barrow with his master. Part of his soul he might be, but only part. The rest was as wild as the wood, and the children ate no flesh, only berries and roots and the water of their secret spring. A wolf could not live on such fare. And children were meat.
Not that there was much up here. Barely so much as a squirrel. And so the great direwolf grew gaunter and hungrier and wilder all the time. The ranger could not tell if the boy was in him, if the link still endured, if the wolf remembered – any more than did he.
But now, Summer was enclosed in a ring of wights. And more were coming.
The ranger saw the wolf snarling, baring slavering jaws, wrenching at the dead men that pressed in on all sides. His golden eyes shone near as bright as their blue ones. Then he rose on his mighty hind legs, and met one full on. Wolf and wight crashed to the snow together, dead black fingers grappling in the thick grey fur at Summer's throat. The direwolf snapped and reared and wrestled, but could not dislodge its attacker. Over and over they rolled, fighting madly. The wolf was as strong as old iron, but it was still a living thing. It could be killed. And if it was, and rose again undead, as the wights did to every animal that they could –
It would end the broken boy. It would end the ranger. It very well might end the children, and the fading hope of spring.
I have to go to him, the ranger thought dimly. I have to save him.
Yet going to Summer meant leaving the door, the gate, where he had been standing for three turns of the moon –
The wolf's kicking was starting to lose strength. Its snarling was turning to a strangled whine, and froth ran down its jaws.
Now or never.
The ranger gathered his legs under him, and threw all his strength into one almighty leap. Over the heads of the seething wights he soared, and for a moment he believed he could fly. Then he was crashing down, landing and rolling, and running.
His sword took the wight clean through the back of the skull. An explosion of rotted brain matter, a turgid gush of black blood, broken pieces of bone. Even a wight could not fail to notice when half its head was taken off, and it flailed apoplectically, twisting backwards like a speared fish. Summer skidded to his feet and opened his jaws, snarling. Yet now the nearly-decapitated wight was bearing down on the ranger.
He raised his sword. Come for me.
It did. The next moment they were at blows, and the ranger's sword tore through the wight's pale belly and a rope of frozen entrails slithered out. Still it did not stop. Cold hands clutched cold hands, wrenching and ripping and tearing, throwing and grappling and grinding. Head to head they went, and the ring of dead men watched in silence.
And the ranger's sword shattered. He heard only a keening screech, shivering and buzzing like a nest of furious hornets. Then his longsword was nothing but shards, the hilt a stump, and he thrust his arm forward and drove the remnants into the wight's eye up to the pommel. Still it did not stop. The stench of carrion gusted into his face. He twisted.
The eye burst. Ran out in black jelly that hissed and steamed and scarred the steel like acid. Yet the other still glinted. It saw.
The ranger lost his footing. He fell into a snowbank hard as rock. The ghost of pain lanced up the leg he'd caught beneath him. Above him and around him and over him, the wights clambered greedily for the gate.
The wards. . . The ranger could not see if they were still burning. Fire drives them away. But there was no fire. Darkness. Darkness and death. The ravens had told him so.
They were diving out of the trees, pecking and flapping and screaming. Curved dark beaks dug wildly at ensorcelled flesh and staring eyes. The snow came down faster.
The broken sword fell from the ranger's hand. He could not rise. A glittering moonshadow fell over him. Steps soft as a mother's kiss on the snow.
No moonshadow. No mother.
The Other stood above the ranger. This close, the coldness that flowed off it was paralyzing. Deep in its skull its eyes gleamed with monstrous, sentient light. It reached down with one elegant hand, and lifted the ranger up by his throat.
He was dead, there was no air to choke off. Yet the coldness took him like a lance, like fire. Blue frozen fingernails sank into his neck.
Death, the ravens screamed. Death.
There are things darker than death, the ranger thought. His strength was at an end. The shield that guards the realms of men.
Aye, and hadn't he? Past death? Past fear? He was no oathbreaker.
In the darkness a wolf howled savagely. Summer. But summer would never return again. Winter is coming. Those words, they had meant something else once. But now they were only stark and immutable truth.
The Other opened its fingers. The ranger fell silent into the snow.
Atop the hill the wards guttered, and died.