Jon dreamed of Robb. He stood under the sun facing Arya and Sansa, whose shadows stretched out behind them, crossed. But Robb cast no shadow, and his face was red and terrible and empty. Arya and Sansa rushed to him, grabbed his arms, and pulled with terrible strength. Robb fought and screamed, but somehow the girls were stronger. He was in pain, he was crying, but still they pulled and pulled, as though they meant to tear him limb from limb… but there were others there, besides his brother and sisters. Seven men of pure shadow with burning eyes rose from the ground, and reached out, mouths open and hungry. Arya and Sansa let go of Robb and fled, and Jon….

Jon woke.

Damn these dreams, he thought with a curse. Damn me more for falling asleep.

He was sitting in a cart, propped up against one side with half a dozen other lame and wounded men riding alongside him. The cart bounced and bumped as it trundled along, with all the men swaying in it with tired resignation. It galled him to spend this long, desperate retreat being carried like a bale of hay. He should be up there on his horse, leading the men, giving commands, but instead, he lay here, injured and useless. They had spoken of giving him his own covered wagon, but he despised that idea. Every day they were losing people to exhaustion and foot sores, and they wanted him to have a cart to himself?

"Ah, you're awake again, Lord Snow," the man across from him said. Waltyr, his name was. Jon had gotten to know all the wounded men on the cart well enough these past few days. Waltyr passed Jon a wineskin, and Jon pretended to take a long drink of it before handing it back appreciatively.

"What time is it?"

Waltyr shrugged. "Who knows? It cannot be night yet, or else we'd be blind, but with these clouds it's hard to say. Sun might be up for an hour yet, or it might have already set and we were riding in twilight. Or the moon is out and making fools of us. Either way, I've heard tell we're soon to stopp."

Damn this weather. Jon pulled his furs about himself. The warm wind that had guarded them on their Northern march had faded entirely, and blizzards had pursued them the whole way South. The going had been slow, and with every mile, they left more bodies behind them. The night raids of the Others had been a constant torment. The dead grew stronger, faster with the cold, and they would catch up and attack in the dead of night. The army was always ready for them now and met them with torches and pikes, but it was a near thing every time, and there were always men who died in the night, whether too cold or fear or just exhaustion.

Wood was less scarce, here, and for that Jon was grateful. They needed the wood to fuel the pyres. Death was the final rest of the warrior, that was what he had always been told. The idea of rising again to fight against his comrades…

He did not want to think of it.

Without any graves or gravestones, the men had taken to memorializing their fallen brothers after the fashion of the wildlings, with small carved tokens of stone or wood, sometimes just a name, sometimes a full record of their life and who they were married to. Waltyr had a whole belt of such tokens, and sometimes when his wine was in him he would look into the sky and talk about how when spring came again he was going to find all his friends' families and give them the tokens. He called it his "belt of heroes," and even now he touched it absent-mindedly.

I wonder what will become of Waltyr's precious belt if Waltyr himself passed away in the night?

Enough.

Jon stirred, wincing at the pain in his leg. That pain was just the old wound again. If he got his feet under him he would be able to ignore it. The real danger lay in his chest. Broken ribs and a cold seeded deep within. He had slept the first three days of the retreat, and his men had carried him like so much useless driftwood for half a hundred miles before he had awoken. Jon breathed in and out, testing himself, but halfway through he found himself coughing and rasping. Gods. The Others advancing and here I am stuck in a cart with a cold.

He supposed in a sense it was a mercy that he was ill. He spent more time dreaming than awake now, ranging far in Ghost's skin, scouting for the army.

He scowled. Not enough. His men needed to see that he was still fighting, even as they were. He felt better today, did he not? Surely by tomorrow, he could sit ahorse? Confound the Maester and his potions. The cart stopped at last. Jon knew people were coming to take him to his tent, but he rose anyway with a curse as pain gripped his chest. Half the men lurched as if to catch him, and he scowled.

"I'm not that lame yet. I'm just going to my tent."

"Have a care milord. Some men will be coming for you-"

"I know."

John limped to his tent, endured a short lecture from the maester, and then fell into his furs to sleep again. He dreamed of a different wolf this time, a wolf playing by the hearth at Winterfell, gnawing on a huge beef bone as music played somewhere in the background. Quiet, concerned voices were there too, but Jon could hardly understand what they were saying, and he did not care. For the moment, the dream was perfect, and he could ask for nothing.

When he woke, the tent was dark and warm and he could do nothing for a minute but cough and cough and wheeze. He rubbed at his eyes, drank from his skin of wine, and cursed, wishing he could go back to dreaming, but after a moment his thoughts cleared, and a strange, happy thought occurred to him. He could breathe. He could think. How many days had it been, since he had been so clear-headed? Since before the battle, at least.

Jon got up from his tent, dressed, and stepped out into the cold. He got a man to help him on a horse and set off to find the King's war council.

The King barely slept, these days or that was what people claimed. He met at first light before the sun had fully risen. Melisandre called it the sacred hour, and these days her claims seemed to hold more weight. Every dawn was a sign the men had survived one day more, and what greater meaning remained than that?

One of the attendants helped him off his horse. Again, the old wound in his leg flared up, and he grit his teeth in pain. After a few minutes, though, he felt the pain subside and he was able to walk, slowly, into the tent where the lords would be meeting.

"I see that our Lord Snow has risen from the dead," Stannis said, barely looking up from the papers that covered the table of sorts that had been cobbled together for his use. The King had looked haggard for as long as Jon had known him, but these days it seemed almost like he was burning from the inside, animated by a strange, feral energy, like a dog chained to a post and starved of food.

The other usual councilors were there as well. Melisandre, Davos. Crowfood and Whoresbane. Alys Karstark. Jon gave her a nod as he entered. She looked as pretty as she ever had, but Jon knew that was a farce. She knew how to paint her face as well as any southerner, and there was value in appearing unperturbed. Jon wondered if they all should not be painting their faces for the sake of the men.

Lord Davos was speaking, "...We won't know until the counts fully come in, but by all accounts, it was a quiet night. Seven only know what the Others are doing, but they're not here and we had peace for a change. If we push hard today—"

"If we push hard," Stannis said, "The men will die of exhaustion long before we get to any kind of safety."

"—The Last River lies before us. There's only one bridge, and even in the winter, the waters won't freeze over. If we can beat them there, we can hold the bridge and bind our wounds, even if just for a day or more."

If, if, if. It was not as though they had a larger army in the south that they could call on. Dustin had some forces, as did Sansa and Jonnel, but it was not enough to make the difference.

"Scouts report tracks in the snow near the bridge. Fresh prints, mostly farmers and herdsmen fleeing the storm, but they also spotted smoke on the horizon, saying it looked like a war camp."

Jon felt a few eyes turn to him, and he grimaced. Was this all he had become? The sorcerer carrying news from afar? The fact that he could answer the question made him all the more annoyed.

"It's a war camp," he said, plain enough. "But they're living folk, and they know what's at stake here. My sister has been sending ravens throughout the North for months now, and finally, we've had some who answered with real force."

Stannis' lip curled. "Say who they are, Lord Snow."

Jon grit his teeth. He hardly liked what he was about to say more than anyone else, but they were in no position to choose. "Ironborn, from the Deepwood, as well as a few mountain clans who hadn't yet rallied. Not many people, but they will have supplies for us, clothes and herds we can slaughter for food."

He did not mention the arrival of Daenerys Targaryen to Winterfell. The last thing the army needed now was to be split by politics. As far as Jon was concerned, they could put a horse on the Iron Throne when this was all over, as long as the realms of the living were secure.

Even the Ironborn were enough to start dark mutterings around the tent. Mors' one good eye twinkled with something like malice. Stannis held up a hand for silence. "We haven't heard from Winterfell in weeks," Stannis said. "Where did you hear of this? Your wolf hasn't been as far South as Winterfell."

Jon sighed. He could see his sisters in the world of dreams. He could talk to Bran and Arya and Sansa and all their wolves, could feel their emotions as his own. But explaining such things to all these here? The idea was unthinkable. Instead, he simply shrugged and said, "My wolf has gone as far south as their camp and listened to what their pickets talk about, and I know enough of my sister's mind to fill in the gaps. We spoke of what possible allies we might have before we marched north, and it is clear that she has reached some kind of agreement with them now. The ironmen of the Deepwood have no other reason to be this far North."

More mutterings. The leaders had come to accept his sorceries, much as they had learned to accept Melisandre's, but that did not mean they were comfortable with how much he knew. It galled him. They would all be laboring under the idea that he was watching them, listening to their words and perhaps even thoughts, when in truth he was ignorant of almost everything except the movements of armies and his own family's councils. But it did not matter. None would move against him while the threat of the Others existed, and after…

Well, he should consider himself fortunate if 'after' ever became a reality.

"How much do you know, then?" Mors said, his voice low. "Do you know how many of them there are? Do you know what your sister promised these rapers?"

Jon knew the exact terms. He knew Sansa's mind on this matter almost as well as his own. The ironmen who had occupied the Deepwood had fallen on the wrong side of a succession crisis on the Iron Islands themselves, and Sansa had offered them lands and towers in exchange for fealty and steel. The notion of ceding land to Ironborn invaders left a bitter taste in his mouth, but in the end, it was no different than the offer he had made to Mance. It was not as though there would be a lack of empty homesteads and towers for the wildlings and ironmen to occupy when this was all over. If they were still alive to do so.

"Does it matter to you? If it puts shoes under our men's feet and food in their bellies, we should be happy."

"We will have to make it across the river, first," the King said.

"The weather is poor," Rakelin said, his lips pursed. "If we force the march…"

"We'll force it anyway," Stannis said. "We can't sit in place and hope to have another quiet night."

Jon caught his eyes for a moment, and something like understanding passed between them. Stannis had condemned men to die, by saying this. Men would fall dead from exhaustion or pass away in the night as the cold and hunger finally took them. A forced march made that a surety. But what other choice did they have?

A few hours later, the whole camp was in motion, tents and pots and armor all packed away onto heavy carts and sleds that toiled southward, pulling through mud and slush. The Kingsroad, Jon thought with scorn. He wondered how Stannis felt, having this miserable dirty path compared to himself. The going was slow, slower than Jon could bear. It felt as though he were having a wound stitched closed, but the surgeon was taking hours instead of minutes to do it, for no reason other than simple cruelty. There were few things in the world slower than an army of heavy infantry marching through the dirt. Jon expected the piercing eyes of the Others to appear behind every hill, and more than once he felt his fingers creep to Longclaw in anticipation of a foe that never appeared. At first, the commanders of the host had promised Stannis they would reach the bridge by nightfall, but as the hours passed those promises became excuses. They would arrive an hour after nightfall, or perhaps two.

It was enough to make Jon want to ride off into the snow and never return.

And yet, and yet they were making progress, despite everything. One by one they conquered the hills, and Jon could sense a cheery spirit coursing through the men despite their exhaustion. News of the herds and supplies had trickled through the camp, and with each retelling, the scale of the aid grew in scale, until Asha Greyjoy became a mythical pirate princess from the Stepstones who had a caravan of peaches and cured meats.

Jon saw no reason to quench their hope. More likely Asha had a herd of reindeer and a few wagons of grain, but it was real, and that made it better than any magical caravan.

What Jon feared more was nightfall. The Others never strayed far from his thoughts, and Jon could not think they meant to let them get across the river without a fight. The bridge itself was clear. Jon and others had confirmed that a hundred times if they had confirmed it once, but that was not the real danger. The wights became faster and stronger with the fall of night, and the men would be at their weakest and weariest by the end of the journey. Even worse, the Others might wait until they were halfway across the river, and strike while their force was divided.

Indeed, the more he thought of it, the more sure he was that the Others would do that. At every turn they had outplayed him, why should this be any different?

And yet, Ghost could find no trace of them on the wind. Jon's fears made him seek out Varamyr, but the evil little man hadn't seen any more than Jon had.

Damn the snow.

You could not see the sky when it was snowing, not really, nor could you see the sun but for a small bright patch of light gray against dark gray. But you could tell, with some effort, when the sun was near setting, as all the world grew darker and the light of day died slowly away. Jon felt his grip on his reigns tighten. They were close, now. He had scouted with Ghost a hundred times and found nothing, but he knew they were close. He knew they were near, watching, waiting, like a hungry man watching a spit of meat turn. Damn them.

But the minutes dragged on and nothing happened. They had made it to the bridge, though Jon had remained on the northward side of the bridge for now. Perhaps that would keep the men's spirits up if they saw their Lord waiting to cross with them. Though perhaps that was just his pride talking. He was not so important to the North, not anymore. All the more reason to stay on the northward side then.

The bridge was not wide, only wide enough for four or five to cross abreast, with dark waters churning on either side. Stannis rode about the host, barking orders, fighting to keep everyone in line. More than once Jon felt the urge to join him, but each time the ache in his chest stopped him. It was probably better this way, he told himself. The last thing anyone needed was he and Stannis fighting over command of the retreat.

Minute after agonizing minute passed, and Jon grew tenser and tenser. But there was no rushing a crossing. The men would get across whenever they would get across. If they were efficient and orderly, that was all you could ask. If only they could be just a little faster though, if only -

A wolf's hunting call sounded on the wind, and Jon felt a chill run down his spine. The Others. The Others had come, and Ghost had found them. Fear caught within the host like a spark on dry wool, and a moment later all of Stannis' hard-bought order and discipline disappeared. Men shouted and shoved and tripped, trying to get to the bridge first. Other men simply fell down and cried. Die. We're all going to die. He heard the words in his own head, heard men all around him say the words again and again. The words were a prophecy, a phrase that once spoken became the truth. An army that believed itself doomed was doomed. That was always the way of it.

Stannis had drawn his cold flame sword and was waving it about and yelling, attempting to calm the storm with his presence. Jon tried to shout, tried to rage, but he could not find the breath in him. And what did it matter? What was one man in the face of such raw, primal fear? The men might have held if they were fifty miles from the bridge, but with the promise of safety so close at hand, all reason had left their minds. Who could bear to stand and die, when life was but a hundred paces away?

The dead were close, but the terror of the wights was nothing next to the chill of the Others. You could feel the Others approach, as the very air about you sharpened and the hair in your nostrils froze. "Stand! Stand!" Jon yelled piteously. A few stood, here and there. Soon there was a line of men, then a ragged square. The rest still fought to escape across the bridge, but how safe would they be when the rearguard failed?

Jon's vision wavered a moment, everything going dark as images of a cave flitted through his mind for a moment. He steadied himself and caught his breath. His wounds had not healed, and a long day of travel in the cold had aggravated them. But he would fight with the men here in the rearguard. He had to.

Shadows moved at the edge of the torchlight. A wall of them approached through the gloom. The dead were walking, a countless horde that stretched as far as the eye could see. How many were there? A hundred thousand? Twice that? Jon felt his heart freeze over. What could they ever hope to do against such a force? They arranged their force against the other, with Jon in the rear with the cavalry, and the rearguard split into center, left, and right. Not many had stayed to guard over their brothers, just a little more than a thousand. The rest was over the river already or crossing, but Jon did not begrudge them that. The men in the rearguard were likely to die, and Jon's only hope was that this small force would be enough to hold until most were across. He felt a surge of fierce pride in his rearguard. Nothing but death awaited them, and still, they stood.

Stand. Stand and fight.

There was no time for theatrics, the dead were upon them already, shambling men and women and children of the North, fresh well-dressed corpses. It was not like before when the dead had baited them into pushing up into a hill with pikes and hammers. Now the dead were coming for them, pushing themselves up the pikes to tear at the faces of the men. The dead washed into them like a wave, and for a single terrible instant, Jon could see the line folding, bending under the pressure.

But they did not break. Perhaps one man could not do much in the face of such raw terror, but many men, standing allied in ranks, could do much. Weeks of being stalked through the snow and sleet had left the men weary, but also resolute. The terror of the Wights had become dull, accepted. Jon saw Northman, Marcher, and Wildling scream and shove and die against the horde of the dead without fear. They were the living still, and they would fight while they lived. Whatever confusion, whatever disagreement plagued them in other times had disappeared entirely. In the struggle to survive they were as one, and they were mighty. Jon dared to feel contemptuous of the wights for a moment. What were these stumbling, lifeless corpses, against the warriors of the living?

But the wights kept coming. The corpses piled up, and Jon had to sound the call to give ground. To give ground after engaging in the melee, that was always the hardest test of an army's resolve. Charging into a fight was one thing, standing in a fight another, but walking away from a melee without running? That was almost impossible, and yet they had to. The bridge lay at their backs and they had to cross it to live.

Jon saw the flank begin to buckle, and he spurred his horse. "To the right! To the right, the right!" He yelled, before breaking down in a fit of coughing. By the time he recovered from his cough, the cavalry had wheeled around the rear of the formation and charged into the dead. The wights had lost any sense of formation in their advance, lacking the discipline to march in lockstep, and the charge of the cavalry swept them away like grass before a scythe. Most of those with Jon saw Justin Massey knock the head off one wight with his hammer, and crush three more beneath his warhorse's thundering hooves. The men of the right flank cheered, and Jon's heart felt light…

And then Jon looked at the left flank.

A great corpse-giant had come there and smashed through the wall of pikes like they were nothing more than small sticks, and the men were running, running aimlessly, or being overrun by their own comrades and being trampled. And as the flank crumpled, it was certain that the center would follow in turn.

A rout was madness, chaos, death. Every commander feared the will of his men breaking more than anything. But what could Jon do? Committed as he was to the right, what could be done about the center?Stannis, where was Stannis? In the rear, as ever. Jon cursed him. What use was prudence in a time like this? "To the left!" he called, but already he knew he would be lucky to save the center. The army was but a few moments from a full retreat.

He could feel his breath coming short. He was in no condition to fight, much as he might wish otherwise. His vision blurred, momentarily, and for a moment he was Ghost, hunting undead in deep snow. Then he was back again, suddenly limp in the saddle. He snarled and sat upright. He would not die like this. They had to get to the center, they had…

But no, the center was holding. The left flank was rallying, rallying around a small knot of heavy infantry, a band of infantry bearing the banner of the Kraken. The Ironborn! Jon began to laugh before the pain put an end to it. What times were these, where the Ironborn marched to the aid of Northmen and Wildlings? Ah, but if it was a miracle, it was a welcome one. The Ironborn would be fresh and well-equipped, they could hold for longer than the rest.

The battle stretched on for a few minutes that felt like days. It was not at all like the normal ebb and flow of a battle, where there would be troops held in reserve. The dead were unrelenting, and if there was reprieve at all it was only because of the disorder of the ranks of the wights. Minute by minute, they were able to retreat. Jon led charges twice more, but he could feel what little strength he had failing.

Just a few more steps. A few more short retreats. They were almost to the bridge now. All at once, the morale of the men failed and the rear ranks began running back over the bridge as quickly as they could manage. They had retreated almost to the bridge itself now. Now if they could just maintain order a little longer… but no. The first part of the rearguard to retreat began an avalanche. Men threw down their pikes to turn and run, and as gaps formed in the front lines, the dead poured in to fill the cracks, grabbing men and tearing them limb from limb. Jon opened his mouth to yell, but could not find the voice. He contemplated charging in to hold the line, but there was no line to hold. The men were in full rout, carrying all before them.

"My lord?" Justin Massey asked. "My Lord, surely we must-"

"Retreat!" A slim figure in mail Jon did not recognize stepped toward him. "Retreat with the horse, damn you. My ironmen will cover you!"

Jon's eyes went momentarily to the banner over her head. Greyjoy. Of course. "Retreat," he said, but it came out too quietly. "Sound the retreat, Massey," he repeated.

The heavy horse had no difficulty pushing their way across the bridge, and moments later they were on the other side. Jon could see the Greyjoy banner still standing tall, slowly working its way back down the bridge. What did Sansa promise them? A question for another time. Jon removed his helmet a moment to retch. Gods. Death would have been a mercy, compared to how he felt. He wiped his mouth clean and scowled.

They had made it across. Hundreds had died in the march to the bridge, hundreds more in the crossing, but they were across. Thank the gods. Jon made a silent pledge that if he lived through all this he would never touch a lance or a sword again. Stannis was managing the defense now, sending forces to relieve Asha on the bridge. The waters of the Last River were wide and swift, and the river never froze over, not even in the deepest winters. If Jon had cursed the narrowness of the bridge, he was praising the gods for it now. The Others could send all the wights they had at that bridge, but disorganized and clumsy as they were, the dead would not breach their defenses. The Others might be able to break through, he knew, but if they attempted it, all the better. They would meet the Others with dragonglass gladly.

Jon felt a surge of sudden weariness, like he might collapse and die at once. His vision blurred again, and he was back in Winterfell, in his father's old solar, looking at a table of maps from three, no four directions at once. Men were talking in quiet, concerned tones, but to Jon, it felt like the most peaceful place imaginable. He rested in the comfort of that vision for a moment.

"SNOW!"

Jon blinked and he was back in the cold, leaning on the horn of his saddle. Stannis glared down at him, his expression even more sour than usual.

"Snow, I am still your king," Stannis said, and Jon could only sigh.

"Yes, your Grace?"

"Fool that you are, you've survived. But the work is not over yet." Of course it wasn't. "We have to arrange..."

Screams rose from the edge of the river, and both Jon and Stannis turned to see why. Had the wights walked under the river? Surely the currents would bear any wight away? There was nothing for it but to see for themselves, so Jon and Stannis rode to the bank.

"What is this," Stannis demanded.

"Y-yer grace, it's the Others, they… look."

Jon peered out into the dark. At first, he could see nothing. Clouds blocked out the stars and the moon, and smoke from the torches stung his eyes. His eyes kept picking out shapes in the gloom, shapes that were not there. But he could hear and that was bad enough. Crack. Crack. Crack. A sound he had heard a thousand times when men came out to break the ice off the roof of the Great Hall in Winterfell. The sound of ice breaking away could not easily be forgotten. But the river was unfrozen, the waters too swift for the cold to catch it.

And then he saw it.

One of the Others was approaching on the far bank. Slowly, step by step, he advanced on the water, and the water retreated, ice forming in its place. The river waters swelled around the edge of the ice, breaking off chunks of it even as it formed, but still, the ice advanced. As Jon's eyes adjusted to the gloom, he realized there were more Others than just the one. There were a dozen at least, with hundreds of wights among them. They meant to build a bridge across the river! It seemed impossible. The river was so wide and so swift, but who was Jon to second guess the Others? What did he know of their limits?

They would need to rally the men, mount a defense, or else flee. But - no. They could not do that either. The men were exhausted, nearly to the point of death. Courage to stand before the dark, they might have, but spirit was nothing without flesh to carry it. The Others would cross the river, and then there would be a slaughter. There was nothing else for it, unless…

"Get me every man who can hold a bow!" Stannis shouted, voicing Jon's thoughts. They had a few hundred arrows of obsidian prepared. They had good archers, skilled marksmen from the Marches, the best archers in the realm, and arrows that could hurt the Others. They could defend the shore easily with but a few bowmen. It had to work.

But as the Others grew closer, Jon felt his confidence waver. The archers were assembling, dividing the arrows between them, and talking quietly. "It's a hard shot," one said. "In the dark, with the wind like it is? These arrows won't cut through their armor, we know that well enough, but hitting their faces or joints… By the time we're close enough to loose into them properly, they'll be almost here."

"You will succeed," Jon said, struggling to keep himself calm. "Have no fear."

A minute passed. Two minutes. The archers readied their bows. The dead advanced. "Loose!" Fifty arrows streaked into the night. Jon could not see them as they flew, could not see whether they hit or missed. He could hear the air split with thunder as a huge fraction of the ice bridge broke away from the rest and floated downstream, shattering into so many pieces.

Cheers went up, cheers all around. They had done it! They would survive to morning!

But then Jon saw the faces of the archers themselves.

The Marcher next to Jon scowled and pointed, and though it took him a moment he soon realized. The bridge had lost only a portion of its mass, and the rest remained, the rest grew as innumerable black shapes moved in the dark distance. But Jon could not see the Others anymore, only the wights. Where were the…

Jon's mouth went dry.

"They've surrounded themselves with the dead," the Marcher said. "We can't get a clean shot, not unless we were up on a tower or something, but even then…"

Screams sounded from the bridge, too, and Jon dimly remembered that there was fighting there too. The Others were pressing them on every side, grinding their opposition into nothingness. The previous assaults up till now had been nothing more than a cat playing with a mouse. The army had been bleeding for days now, and the Others meant to end things tonight.

Jon's mind raced. Perhaps they could send a few riders away. Perhaps they could gather wood and burn it on the shoreline as a defense against the wights. Perhaps they could… but no. There was nothing to be done. There was no time. All the force of the Others would be among them in a moment, and the men had no will to do anything to stop them. The men had given their all, had given more than their all, and there was no more to be given then.

Bran. Jon had heard his mind before, and reached out to him now. Bran, what can we do?

Brother, you must leave, Bran's voice urged. You must get out of there, brother.

Jon looked skyward for a moment. He would be lying if he did not desire to go back to Winterfell, to see his sisters… but there was no hope there either. If the army was gone, what haven remained for him?

No. He had broken enough oaths for one life. He would stand here, and do his best to die well. What else remained when all hope failed, but to fight on anyway?

He looked to Stannis. The king's eyes were dark with shadow, and his head was bowed. Briefly, Jon wondered if he might be praying, and whether it was the Seven or the Lord of Light to which he prayed. But soon Stannis raised his head.

"Melisandre," he said, and Jon turned and saw that at some point the red witch had joined them on the shoreline. She looked as lovely as ever, but her features had grown sharper, harsher, almost Other-like in their inhuman beauty.

"My king," she said, her voice low. A moment passed between them, and Stannis nodded. Melisandre looked away.

"Very well," she said. Her face was calm, but her voice hitched slightly with emotion. She closed her eyes and began a low chant in High Valyrian, raising her arms to the clouds. Stannis grabbed a torch from a nearby soldier with one hand, and drew Lightbringer with the other. The colors of the blade nearly blinded Jon in the dark of night. Red and yellow, green and bright blue. For a moment it was like day had come again, as though Jon was staring directly at the sun… but there was no warmth, no life, only light and color. The dark of the river had become all the darker by comparison, but Jon could see the light of the sword glimmering in the eyes of the wights as they advanced.

Melisandre's chant grew louder with every word, her voice shaking with emotion as she said the strange words again and again. Jon looked to Stannis, and the King looked down at him. "Snow," he said. "You will serve my daughter as you served me. Swear it."

I never served you, Jon thought. They both knew this alliance had been nothing more than a farce, a matter of convenience while the Others remained. But still. He bowed his head. "I swear I will serve Queen Shireen as I have served you." For whatever that is worth.

Stannis gave a small nod, and Jon believed he understood. Melisandre's chanting had become a scream, and the light of Stannis' sword a sun. He lifted torch and blade aloft as one, and the light redoubled, tripled.

Then Stannis took Lightbringer and ran himself through. He screamed in pain then, and fire engulfed his body. The raw heat of the fire was enough that Jon hid his face and retreated, stumbling away. Of all the host only Mel remained by his side at the end, enduring the heat of the blaze as tears glistened on her cheeks. Stannis sank to his knees, still burning, still screaming in pain. He drew the blade from his flesh and stood again, raising his sword against the night.

Azor Ahai. The Prince that Was Promised. The words came to mind, but contrasted with what he saw with his own eyes the spectacle seemed like nothing in comparison. What was a prophecy, in the end? Just words.

Wind came then, a gale from the south that knocked over tents and drove horses to flight. Jon clutched at his cloak and was shocked to find it damp with snowmelt. The wind from the south. For many weeks that wind had hobbled the Others, forced them to retreat, and now Stannis had called it again. The wind was warm, deliciously warm, and Jon could hear the crack, crack, crack of the ice sheets melting away.

Jon sat there, watching the fire that had been the king, long into the night, until at last the fire ended and all that remained was a sword, and ash upon the wind.