The crispy and well-cooked onions crunched between Ygritte’s teeth. “Mance would have our heads if he found out we started this fire,” Lothor grumbled as he sat at his watch position, looking out for any signs of movement below the pass.
Which was absurd, as it was pitch black down below, and the crows would never have risked moving in this unfamiliar terrain at night. Ygritte, along with Lothor and Orell, had been sent by Mance Rayder to act as sentries on the Skirling Pass, making sure that the free folk encampment would not be caught off-guard by a surprise attack by the crows. It was the best place to be on lookout. It stood two thousand feet high, with a massive monolith of pure granite thrust out the side near the top, adding to the pass’s impressive height.
They had made camp in a depression near the narrowest part of the pass, with the granite wall to shield them from the worst of the wind, and pure black emptiness on the other side. The only way they would have been caught unawares is if the crows scaled the mountain wall, which was already insane enough even for the most seasoned climber, especially in the dark of night.
“Mance ain’t here. And besides, the crows would never risk moving at night. This is our country, not theirs,” answered Orell.
He sat by the fire, keeping it alive with sticks and twigs. Lothor was right about the fire though. In the morning light, the flames would be barely noticeable, but at night, they shone as bright as any beacon, painting the night sky with flickering shades of red and orange. The two men continued their petty squabble over the flames. Tired of it all, Ygritte went to sleep beneath her furs.
She awoke to the sounds of battle. Sitting up, Ygritte saw Orell fall to the ground with a bastard sword thrust in his chest, and Lothor already dead, still clutching the horn he was trying to blow when a second crow felled him. Ygritte was reaching for her axe when a hand roughly yanked her head up by the hair and the cold and deadly sensation of a dirk pressed against her bare throat.
Her captor’s hand froze. “A girl.”
“A watcher,” said the second man. “A wildling. Finish her.”
Ygritte looked into her captor’s eyes. They were grey and serious. He could not have been more than a boy of sixteen. With a long and hard face and haggard black hair, however, he already looked half a man. “Will you yield?” he asked as he twisted the dirk.
“You’re our captive, then.” She felt the dirk pull away from the skin of her throat.
“Qhorin said nothing of taking captives,” objected the other crow, a short and lanky man, maybe aged near fifty judging from his grey beard.
Ygritte recognized the name he spoke of, however, and it filled her with dread. Qhorin Halfhand was a legendary crow. His name was revered and reviled south and north of the Wall respectively. He had slaughtered an innumerable amount of the free folk, and was even Mance Rayder’s close friend before Mance turned his cloak and joined the free folk’s cause.
“He never said not to.” The boy let go of Ygritte’s hair and she scuttled away from them.
“She’s a spearwife.” The old crow looked at the axe Ygritte was reaching for. “She was reaching for that when you grabbed her. Give her half a chance and she’ll bury it between your eyes.”
“I won’t give her half a chance,” said the boy as he kicked the axe well out of Ygritte’s reach. “Do you have a name?” he inquired brusquely.
“Ygritte.” She rubbed her throat and was surprised when her hand came away bloody.
After sheathing his dirk, the boy wrenched his bastard sword free from Orell’s chest and sheathed it as well. “You are my captive, Ygritte.”
“I gave you my name.”
“I’m Jon Snow.”
Ygritte flinched. A bastard.
“An evil name.”
“A bastard name. My father was Lord Eddard Stark of Winterfell.”
Ygritte studied him warily. The Starks had been another bane to the free folk’s existence, besides the Night’s Watch. Their ancestral seat was located near the Wall, and thus, they had thwarted many of her fellow free folk’s invasions over the centuries. The old crow let out a chuckle. “It’s the captive supposed to tell things, remember?” The crow thrust a long branch into the fire and hurled it down below into the dark beyond. A signal for the rest of their party to come up, no doubt. “Not that she will. I’ve known wildlings to bite off their own tongues before they’d answer a question.”
“You ought to burn them you killed,” said Ygritte.
“Need a bigger fire for that, and big fires burn bright.” The old crow scanned the dark distance for any sign of light. “Are there more wildlings close by, is that it?”
“Burn them,” Ygritte insisted stubbornly, “or it might be you’ll need them swords again.”
The truth was, there were more wildlings nearby, but the crows didn’t need to know that. “Maybe we should do as she says,” said Jon Snow.
“There are other ways.”
The old crow knelt beside Lothor’s corpse, took away his cloak, boots, belt and vest, and hoisted the body over his thin shoulder and moved to the edge of the pass. He tossed it over. A moment later, a loud, wet smack resounded from the bottom of the pass. Ygritte watched with disgust as Jon Snow helped him with Orell. She said nothing.
“Were you sent to watch for us?” Jon Snow asked her.
“You, and others.”
The old crow crouched and warmed his hands by the fire. “What waits beyond the pass?”
“The free folk.”
“Hundreds and thousands. More than you ever saw, crow.” Ygritte smiled her crooked smile.
She could see the disbelief on the crows’ faces. They did not believe her. “Why come here?”
Ygritte fell silent.
“What’s in the Frostfangs that your king could want? You can’t stay here, there’s no food,” Jon Snow inquired.
Ygritte turned away from him. She was many things, wretched husband-fucker, redhead, spearwife, but she was resolved to not become a traitor.
“Do you mean to march on the Wall? When?”
Ygritte stared at the flames and pretended not to hear him.
“Do you know anything of my uncle, Benjen Stark?”
Ygritte continued to ignore him. The old crow let out a sardonic laugh. “If she spits out her tongue, don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
A low rumbling growl came from the bottom of the pass. Alarmed, Jon Snow rose and another growl was heard. Ygritte couldn’t help but be amused by his anxiousness.
“They won’t trouble us,” Ygritte said, finally breaking her silence. “It’s the dead they’ve come for. Cats can smell blood six miles off. They’ll stay near the bodies till they’ve eaten every last stringy shred o’ meat, and cracked the bones for the marrow.”
They could all hear the sounds of feeding echo off the rocks. Ygritte noticed unease flash across Jon Snow’s face. “Were they your kin?” he asked her quietly. “The two we killed?”
“No more than you are.”
“Me?” he gave a confused frown. “What do you mean?”
“You said you were the Bastard o’ Winterfell.”
“Who was your mother?”
“Some woman. Most of them are.”
Ygritte smiled again. “And she never sung you the song o’ the winter rose?”
“I never knew my mother, or any such song.”
“Bael the Bard made it,” said Ygritte. “He was King-beyond-the-Wall a long time back. All the free folk know his songs, but might be you don’t sing them in the south.”
“Winterfell’s not in the south,” Jon Snow objected.
“Yes it is. Everything below the Wall is south to us.”
“I suppose it’s all in where you’re standing,” Jon Snow mused.
“Aye,” Ygritte agreed. “It always is.”
“Tell me,” Jon snow urged.
“Might be you won’t like it much.”
“I’ll hear it all the same.”
So she told him the tale. It was a long one, but by the time she finished, the crows’ companions still had not arrived. “Your Bael was a liar,” Jon Snow told Ygritte with certainty in his voice.
“No,” Ygritte said, “but a bard’s truth is different than yours or mine. Anyway, you asked for the story, so I told it.” She turned away from him, closed her eyes, and gave in to the tug of sleep that had been pulling on her mind.
Qhorin Halfhand arrived at dawn. Ygritte was woken by a light kick in the gut. They descended to meet them with Jon Snow holding onto her arm. The first thing she noticed about the new arrivals was the white direwolf racing ahead to greet Snow. It was bigger than any wolf she had ever seen, its coat was as white as Jon Snow’s namesake, and its eyes were blood-red. Ygritte watched in awe as Jon Snow knelt and let it gently tug on his wrist with its jaws.
Qhorin Halfhand stayed silent when he saw Ygritte. “There were three,” the old crow told him and nothing more.
“We passed two,” said one of the other arrivals, a squat, well-muscled and bald crow, “or what the cats had left of them.” Ygritte felt his eyes studying her, and they felt like knives.
“She yielded,” Jon Snow quickly blurted out.
Qhorin Halfhand’s face remained impassive. “Do you know who I am?”
“Qhorin Halfhand,” Ygritte answered, putting on as brave a front as she could.
“Tell me true. If I fell into the hands of your people and yielded myself, what would it win me?”
“A slower death than elsewise.”
The bald crow turned to Jon Snow. “We have no food to feed her, nor can we spare a man to watch her.”
“The way before us is perilous enough, lad,” said a fifth crow, “One shout when we need silence, and every man of us is doomed.”
The bald crow drew his dagger. “A steel kiss will keep her quiet.”
Jon Snow looked at all of his companions helplessly. “She yielded herself to me.”
“Then you must do what needs be done,” Qhorin Halfhand said. “You are the blood of Winterfell and a man of the Night’s Watch.” He turned to the others. “Come, brothers. Leave him to it. It will go easier for him if we do not watch.” And he led them up the steep twisting trail towards the pale glow of the sun, and left Jon Snow and the direwolf alone with Ygritte.
Ygritte did not try to run. She stood there watching him. His unease was palpable, washing off like waves off of him. “You never killed a woman before, did you?” When Jon Snow shook his head, she said, “We die the same as men. But you don’t need to do it. Mance would take you, I know he would. There’s secret ways. Them crows would never catch us.”
This was her only chance at survival. It was a last ditch effort, but it had to work else she was dead.
“I’m as much a crow as they are.” And off her chance of survival went, plummeting down the pass.
Ygritte nodded, resigned. “Will you burn me, after?”
“I can’t. The smoke might be seen.”
“That’s so.” She shrugged. “Well, there’s worse places to end up than the belly of a shadowcat.”
He pulled his bastard sword over his shoulder. “Aren’t you afraid?”
“Last night, I was,” she admitted. “But now the sun’s up.” She pushed her hair aside to bare her neck, and knelt before him. “Strike hard and true, crow, or I’ll come back and haunt you.”
He touched the blade on her neck to mark the spot where he would strike. The coldness stung. “That’s cold,” she said. “Go on, be quick about it.”
Jon Snow raised the blade.
“Do it,” Ygritte urged after a moment.
The blade stayed still, erect in the air
“Bastard. Do it. I can’t stay brave forever.”
The blow still did not fall. She turned her head to look at him. Jon Snow lowered his sword. “Go,” he muttered.
“Now,” he said, “before my wits return. Go.”
And so she went.