The cold stings the back of your throat and your chest as you run through the cold. Eleven years out here, you think you'd be used to it, but then again, you don't spend every day sprinting and weaving through the trees while carrying a lumpy sack in your arms.
As you pass the pines that seem to pierce the sky, you see the occasional carving and you remember that you're on the right path. The rock that looks like a rabbit with its ears tucked back. The three sticks you laid out like the footprint of a bird. You swerve to the left and you can vaguely make out the snow-dusted side of the tent you call home.
"Mum!" you call out.
As you slow to a halt at the front of the tent, she finally steps out, pulling the hood of her coat back and tossing her golden blonde braid of hair behind her shoulder.
"Cotter?" she asks scoldingly. "Did you steal those from a Crow camp?!"
"Aye," you admit sheepishly. "But they didn't see me! And I made sure to run really fast so they couldn't catch me anyways!"
Your mother shakes her head.
"Cotter... I don't want you to die because of some Crow."
You hang your head in shame, but reach into the sack with a little smile and pull out a potato almost too big to hold in your hand.
"Is there enough for you to make that really yummy potato stew?" you ask hopefully.
"I'd say there's probably enough to make potato stew for our entire village," she smirks, and tousles your hair.
You laugh, and she chuckles a little, the smile returning to her face. She lowers her hand to her stomach; even with her coat, her large and round figure stands out. It reminds you of the full moon... in fact, your new sibling will probably have been born by then.
"But I think for the three of us, we can have enough stew for a few days."
Apples. Sylvi loves apples.
You quietly slip them into your sack and sneak out of the tent.
Apples, potatoes, edible roots and flowers, dried meat, a knife, a waterskin, some extra furs... you've snagged a little bit of everything from almost all the tents in the village.
It's a good thing the moon was full tonight and the sky was clear. It would probably be hard to sneak around between tents if it weren't for the natural lighting.
Your foot kicks something and you freeze for a moment, hoping no one heard that. There's no response. Looking down, it appears that Kjar left a spear sitting alongside his tent. Is he really that careless? More like Kjarless. You smile a little at your joke and pick it up. Not the sharpest point, but that's okay. Better than trying to take one of the finer spears from Hulda, the strongest spearwife in the village.
You pass the tents on the outskirts of the village, starting to head out into the forest. The footprints are no longer fresh, but you can still figure out the path.
Your ears support your eyes in finding the way, the soft sobs growing louder.
"Sylvi!" you call out.
She still can't pronounce your name right, but that's okay. She has time. She's made it this long, and she's going to keep on making it.
She waddles up to you, furs bundled heavily around her. Your mother seems to have felt bad about the decision, but not bad enough to have tried to find another solution. You hug her close, letting her cry against your shoulder. It's on you to comfort her and keep her warm now. You have to protect her and keep her alive.
And you will. You'll do anything for your sister.
You shift the sack over your shoulder, and pick up Sylvi, and start walking forward. There will be other villages. There will be other camps. There will be somebody who understands.
"I've gotcha, Sylvi. I won't let anything happen to you," you promise.
You don't look back.
Armyr... Genkar... Bresha... they wouldn't be making it back after this weapon run.
You caught your breath in the dark, musty depths of the cellar that you had hid in. The cracks in the wooden door above you didn't allow for much light, but you could at least determine that nobody else was down here at the moment. The sword you had stolen was your only companion now.
You clutched at your forehead, trying to think. The men were on your trail. They would ask around, and if this place was used for storage, someone had to come down here and turn you in eventually.
You shrink into a huddled ball as you hear a door open on the opposite side of the room.
" - from the coop, I'll get a fire started in the oven!" a woman's voice calls out.
A little more light floods in, and you shift a little, peeking past the edge of the crate, to see the round shadow of a woman - probably a mother - standing in front of a stone oven, placing some logs on and tossing in a few lit branches, flapping the end of her apron to coax the flames to grow. The light and warmth starts to grow, and she finally heads back up the steps and closes the door behind her.
You wonder if she's baking bread for her children. For a brief moment, you remember your own mother's homecooked meals, but you shake your head. She's in the past now. It's been over ten years since you ran away that fateful night. Ten years of travel, never staying with one particular camp or village for too long, with your sister as the only constant.
Shit. If this family finds a wildling in their basement, they'll kill you, or at least keep you trapped down here until they can find someone to do the job. And if you're gone, what will Sylvi do?
You clutch the sword a little tighter. Try to buy some time, you suppose.
You reach back with your other hand and grab your hair, the spot where it's tied back. You pull your hair taut, then quickly but carefully swing the sword. You drop your locks of hair to the ground and let your hand run through the ends of your shorter hair now. It feels like a fairly even cut, not like something done in a hurry. Passable.
The hair's a good start, but you're still not going to fool anyone dressed in furs. You slip out of your coat, leaving you in a very plain white tunic, stained with sweat and dirt. Probably would make you look like a farmhand.
Your eyes shift back to the oven. One thing left to do, you suppose. You slowly make your way across the cellar, and finally toss the coat and nearly an arm's length of hair into the flames. A terrible mistake, you soon realize, as the rancid smell makes you gag. Twice. You shuffle away, starting to head toward the ladder that leads out of the cellar outdoors, when your foot accidentally knocks a burlap sack over.
Apples. Ten years later, Sylvi still loves them. You stoop down and gather them quickly into the sack, slinging it over your shoulder with a smile.
The door above you opens, and the woman staring down at you is definitely not smiling.
This day has just been fucking great.
You've had to hear Finn tell that damn story about the girl and the knife for... gods, you've lost count of how many times it's been. Then Frostfinger goes and talks about wanting everyone to prove their abilities in strength and fighting and whatnot.
Now you're sitting here, nursing your wounded foot and pride, watching as Gared manages to lodge a crossbow bolt into the head of one of the dummies for target practice.
"One less wildling!" the instructor praises.
You don't know much about the Houses to the south, but they all seem to have some sort of saying associated with them... and if the Wall were to have its own saying, 'One Less Wildling' would probably be it.
It's ironic, how there's so many men concentrated in one place, yet you've never felt more alone in your life. Sylvi's grown to be stronger over the years, but she's still your sister and you still can't help but worry about her. And... maybe it's selfish, maybe it's not, but you also long for a different type of companionship.
In crossing paths with various villages over the years, Sylvi had spent time with the spearwives, learning about the sorts of traditions and health practices that only another woman could teach her. She'd finally asked one day if you'd ever bring back a woman to your camp to marry, and the question had left you flustered because... while it wasn't outlawed, you had to explain to your sister that if you ever did find someone to marry, it wouldn't be a woman that you brought back to camp. Of course, as your sister, she was completely accepting of you.
A cruel irony indeed, though, to think that you could walk past someone who had raped, had murdered, had robbed... but at dinner time, when attending training, anytime conversation or idle chatter arose, it was always the rumor of who was bedding other men that garnered the most disgust and denial.
You look up at Gared, but his eyes seem to be on someone else - Jon Snow, perhaps? He commanded a surprising amount of respect, despite being younger than many of the men here. You've never really spoken with him, but you'd be lying if you didn't admit the man was handsome. But in all honesty, it was probably best that you quickly got over your early fixation on him. Jon Snow wouldn't love a man - and he'd probably be even less likely to love a wildling.
Your hand clenches a little too tightly on your foot with that thought, and you wince. Gared approaches you, and not sure if you were going to have to deal with some other joke about fucking potatoes, you quickly put on a bitter expression.
"Finn thinks he's so bloody clever," you mutter. "If a real wildling got his hands on him..."
"He's just a bully," Gared dismisses softly, a smile returning to his face.
Potato jokes aside... Gared had been the kindest man you'd met at Castle Black. Just by looking at him, you had been able to tell he was nice when you'd met him a few days ago.
"Aye, he is," you agree, and feeling a bit playful, you reach into your back pocket. "That's why I took this."
You dangle the knife between your fingers, letting it sway.
"Swiped it right off him," you add, throwing in a wink before tucking it back into hiding. "Don't tell, all right? I don't think he'd take it kindly."
Gared glances over his shoulder at Finn. His stare lingers and you wonder for a moment if perhaps maybe you shouldn't have just confessed to stealing in front of an honest man. He's silent a moment longer, but then he turns back to you, one corner of his lips turned up in the slightest of smirks.
"I won't tell anyone."
Your own playful smirk dissolves into a genuine smile, your facade cracking for just a moment.
"I knew I could trust you," you end up speaking your thoughts aloud.
Gared doesn't seem to pay them much mind, folding his arms and walking off to test his strength with the barrels...? No, he's walking back over to the stables, and now he's gently running his hand through the horse's mane.
He's... really a gentle person, isn't he?
Your heart flutters in your chest with that thought. You clench your foot tightly again, until the pain dispels any lighter feelings inside you.
The barracks are almost as dark as the cellar you were first found in, but you keep low and keep moving swiftly, peering around at all the sleeping men. You always minded your business and went back to your bunk when night fell, but this morning... this morning was different.
A thin blade of sunlight slices in between a small crack in the roofing, and wouldn't you know it, the tip of it is pointing to the foot of someone's bed, and wouldn't you know it, that someone just so happens to be Gared Tuttle.
Now you're not here to fetch him for breakfast, or for an early training session. You're here out of your own curiosity. And now you realize that visiting another man's bed out of curiosity doesn't sound good in your mind, but there's something you need to know.
Gared's sleeping on his side, his back facing you, so you only need to listen for him to start moving on the bed to know if he's waking up. His boots are right here, so you check them first. Nothing, not even a dagger hidden away. His cloak and armor are here too, as is the tunic and trousers he wore the day he came to the Wall. There's a coin or two, but they still aren't what you're looking for.
You suppose there's only one other place to look. Gently, you lift the sheets near the foot of the bed - you can see the edge of Gared's trousers over his ankles, so if they have pockets, they must have the thing you're looking for. You lower the end of the sheets back over his ankles, quickly peek over your shoulder for any brothers, and then delicately lift the part of the sheet closest to his waist to have access to the pocket on his hip.
Slowly and carefully, you slip two fingers in, grazing the material within... but you find nothing. You deftly remove them in a swift motion. Guess it must have been in the other...
Gared shifts in bed and you take a step back, crouching down, once again making sure there's no one around watching you. He rolls onto his other side, seemingly still asleep, but now a glint of sunlight near his neck catches your eye.
Was that it?
You step closer and examine it. It's a necklace, but the most important part of it is that metal plate attached to it - you would guess Ironwood, based on what Gared's told you of his home, and the tree engraved on it seems to suggest that. It might even be the sigil of House Forrester.
Which then begs another question.
If this was what Gared's uncle brought him, was it actually from him? ... Or was it delivered on behalf of another person?
There has to be more to this than what Gared was letting on. Delicately, you lift the sheet near his waist again, and check his pocket. You're much quicker this time, finding a folded piece of paper tucked in there, and you're also remarkably lucky that he didn't wake up. One would almost mistake your insatiable curiosity for desperation (because you're just curious, not desperate for answers, you remind yourself), especially the way your hand trembles when you go to unfold it.
It's... a map.
There's trees, rivers, a mammoth, a weirwood... this is somewhere north of the Wall, you know it. There's even what looks like a drawn version of the metal plate on Gared's necklace. You take a look at the words written on the map...
... Oh, right. You can't read. But there's three words near the top that have a line drawn under them, and they seem a little larger than the rest of the words. That must be what the map is leading to, and the other words are possibly directions.
So somebody wants Gared to find something, probably somebody associated with the necklace. That still doesn't give you much of a clue. Of course, you're starting to realize what a stupid plan this was. What if it was a letter? You can't read, you have no idea what it would be saying. There's no point in worrying about who wants this thing, just like how you wouldn't have known what could've been on a possible letter. A friend from the House? A message of support from Gared's uncle?
... A note from a lover?
You fold the map back up, your eyes turning to Gared. He's still asleep, though even in the dim lighting you can tell one of his eyes is darker than the other. Your stomach sinks. That was your fault. Gared had kept his word, but Finn figured out you had stolen his knife, and even when you hid behind Gared like a coward, he still stood there and took the punch for you. But by the end of the week, as you awaited your assignments, he stood there with that black eye and said he wouldn't be much of a friend if he had ratted you out over the knife. It's certainly healed over the past few days, things seemed to have settled down with Finn, and it definitely doesn't seem to be affecting his sleep.
You realize you've been staring at the peaceful expression on his face for a while now, and quickly you look around, your cheeks growing warm. Gods, if someone had walked in... this is why you're not supposed to get attached! But if Gared's going North, then you've got someone to go with you, to finally find your sister. The only thing is, you'll have to convince him, and you don't think that being friends or brothers is reason enough.
Maybe it's finally time to tell him the truth... about your background, that is. Not that there's anything else that you're not being honest about, not even with yourself. There's a chance that he'll try to turn you in, and you'll have to think of a lie to get yourself out of everyone at Castle Black wanting to kill you. No pressure. There's a chance he won't believe you - and if he still comes with you, great; if not, you'll just escape on your own somehow. And though incredibly small, there's a chance he'll still accept you completely. Now that one kind of worries you, because it's so incredibly unlikely that you don't really know -
Gared's moving again - more so than before. Now that the room is lighting up, he's probably waking up. Still clutching the map, you quickly exit before he knows you're there.
A day has passed since you fled Castle Black. You freed Gared from that cell with the promise of coming along to the North Grove. Of course, Finn had to show up and Gared agreed that he would be helpful accompanying you. It's one extra mouth to feed, though... and you had honestly hoped that maybe you could've kept some of the crabapples for Sylvi, but unfortunately it seems that she's not the only fan of crisp fruit.
Night has fallen, and the woods have turned colder, but a fire crackles in front of you, at least keeping your feet warm. At the opposite side of the fire, you can see Finn, sleeping on the ground. Gared sleeps to your right. You volunteered to take first shift tonight - you're used to late nights to stay up and watch over your sister, though you'd never let them know that.
You still remember how scared you were, telling Gared about your home. He had warned you about what would happen if everyone found out your secret. But then he put on a roguish grin and assured you that you were still brothers. There was one night at dinner, Gared had talked about his younger sister, and you remember that you had almost confided in him about Sylvi. You may have been content to let secrets about yourself slip around him, but you had to protect Sylvi, no matter how many charming and confident smirks Gared tossed your way.
You bounce your legs a few times. You've learned to cope with the boredom as you've gotten older, but that doesn't mean you don't get stiff or tired when you sit and keep watch until the moon reaches a certain spot in the sky.
"I can take over, if you need a break," Gared whispers softly, and you nearly jump.
"Did I wake you?" you ask, noticing that he's now sitting up from where he was lying down before.
He shakes his head.
"No... I just can't seem to fall asleep. I keep thinking about it," Gared admits.
"The North Grove," you say with a nod.
"Aye," Gared nods, and continues. "I know Lord Forrester knew it held great power, but what is it? Is it a fortress? A second whole forest of Ironwood?"
"Maybe it's a long lost cousin who can warg into multiple giants. At the same time," you suggest with a grin.
"That'd be something," Gared chuckles slightly.
You both sit there quietly, watching the fire as it consumes a few more branches.
"I'll relieve you of your duty early, if you'd like. I really don't mind," Gared offers.
You look up at the moon. It was getting close to crossing past that dull red star, indicating that your watch was indeed fairly close to ending.
"All right," you agree, standing up and shifting to the left.
Gared also stands and moves to the left, taking a seat on the rock where you had been sitting prior.
A sheet of pine needles over the snow isn't ideal, but when you're tired, you'll settle for anything. You take a seat at the foot of it, watching as an orange spark from the flame drifts lazily into the sky, until it fades into a bright green.
... Bright green?
You scoot back a little, and the bright green light becomes more visible.
"Gared," you whisper. "Gared, look at this."
He looks at you, puzzled, then follows your gaze to the sky. He gets up briefly, only to sit down next to you, turning his gaze skyward again, watching the green light that sways like a ribbon in the breeze.
"I'd sometimes see the sky light up back home," Gared remarks softly. "But I never had a view like this. Bright... brilliant..."
"Beautiful," you say it with him at the same time, and your eyes meet.
You exchange a smile, but Gared's expression falls, and he looks back into the fire.
"What's wrong?" you ask.
"Sometimes I wonder about what life is going to be like after all of... this. What Ironrath will be like, if I ever see it again. And... maybe it's selfish of me to wonder, but Lord Forrester was going to promote me from being just a squire. Now that Rodrik's the new lord... will he still promote me?"
"Can't you just ask?" you shrug.
"Not to mention, I've mostly lived at Ironrath since becoming a squire... what's going to happen to my father's farm?" Gared shakes his head. "And now that Britt's dead because of me - "
"Yeah, but that wasn't your fault," you point out.
"I'm a deserter and I've killed a brother. The Forresters could give me a pardon, sure, but part of what got me sent to the Wall wasn't just to find the North Grove... it was to keep me away from the Whitehills. If they were to find out that I had returned home with a pardon, despite killing someone who once served them... there's nowhere else I could go."
"You could stay with me," you offer.
No, no, no! Do you not realize how stupid you sound right now? Do you really think he'd pick these freezing nights, pick you, over his House?? Gared doesn't belong out here and you know it, and your chest sinks with that knowledge. You could've at least suggested he stay out here, but you had to insert yourself into the suggestion, to stay with you, and now he knows what you've finally had to accept.
You're attached to him. Very, very attached. So attached, in fact, that you can still only describe your feelings for Gared Tuttle using the word "attached", because if you were to use a certain other word, you fear your heart would burst.
But before you can correct yourself, he smiles at you, only it's different this time. Softer. Warmer. It's the first time he's smiled at you like this before.
"Thank you, Cotter. That's kind of you to offer. I'll keep that in mind," Gared says.
"For fuck's sake, Gared, will you shut up and kiss him goodnight already?" Finn asks loudly, though he doesn't move from where he rests.
You feel your face grow warm, and you realize just how close Gared is sitting to you. Was he sitting that close earlier? Perhaps you unknowingly moved closer out of a natural need to feel warmer.
He chuckles a little and shakes his head, though in the dim lighting of the fire, you can tell that his cheeks are slightly flushed.
Neither of you really says anything, watching the embers of the fire starting to flicker out.
"Gods, it's cold," Gared murmurs, and scoots even closer to you.
You look at him, and he looks at you briefly, glances over in Finn's direction, then looks back at you. You wonder why he glanced at Finn for that brief moment, and in the time it takes you to process that thought you know why he glanced at him, as you feel his lips gently ghost against yours, stealing a kiss.
You close your eyes, and you're not really sure if you should lean into it or pull Gared in closer, but you're not really given time to decide as he pulls back gently but quickly.
"Right," he chuckles, careful to keep his voice low. "I'll go put some more wood on the fire, and take watch from here. Good night, Cotter."
"... G... Good night, Gared."
He gets up and walks over to the kindling pile a short distance away. You finally decide to lay down and get some rest.
You've lived twenty-four years out in these woods, and you've come to realize there's a lot of things you know, and many more things that you don't know.
You don't know what's in the North Grove. You don't know what Gared's House will do with him. You don't know how Finn and Gared will react to your sister, but you do know that she can help you find the North Grove. And you know that she's only about half a day's walk away.
You hear the wood shifting on the fire, and you smile a little as you drift off to sleep, as you recall one more thing.
You know you love Gared Tuttle.