IN A WAY, IT WAS FUNNY, HOW MUCH HE COULD REMEMBER WHEN HE CLOSED HIS EYES. When he was awake and someone asked him what had happened, Sam could barely string two words together. Fragmented images would flash before him, like a fire making shadows dance upon a wall, things he didn't remember seeing and sounds he didn't remember hearing and smells he didn't remember smelling, black blood smeared across the ice and Jafer Flowers screeching at the stars and the shock of Alliser Thorne being kind. It was all seared into his mind, but the second someone asked him to describe it, it was gone, a half-remembered nightmare that threatened to choke him with fear and horror. He would stammer and stutter and his hands would begin to shake and sometimes the questioner would get frustrated and annoyed and once Dareon had shouted at him but Alliser Thorne had appeared out of nowhere and told the singer to leave Sam alone, which, to be honest, frightened Sam more than anything.

But then night would come, and Sam would lay down on his coat and close his eyes and it would all come flooding back, as it was happening all over again.

At least you haven't pissed yourself again, craven.

Sam sat up in his cot, rubbed the troubled sleep from his eyes, though his father's voice continued to ring in his ears. He knew what the next voice was going to say, knew what all the voices would say, tried to push them away, tried to ignore them, but they came, just like always, the doubts and the fears and the worries that he could not seem to stop.

He gave up on sleep, pivoted his feet off the bed, bent over and set to putting on his boots. He lost himself in the process of getting dressed, latching on to each step like a drowning man would clutch at a piece of wood. Boots, woolens, cloak, gloves, each one a step, each one a chance to push the flames and the things that he saw away. But in the end, it was all for naught, as Sam had known it would be. In the end, he was standing at the door, gloved hand on the handle, feeling the chill of the iron ring through the fur-lined leather.

In the end, he closed his eyes, thought about going back to bed, and saw the flames again.

His eyes shot open, he gave himself a shake, threw open the door, and walked out into the hallway.

How he ended up at the foot of the Wall, he didn't know. He didn't remember anything after he had shoved through his door, he only knew that he blinked and there he was, staring at the winch cage, looking up at the Wall looming over him. It wasn't even autumn yet, back at Horn Hill it would still be hot and sunny, but one wouldn't know it, here at the foot of the Wall. The Wall had been weeping that morning, the older brothers said that it would be weeping for some time yet, but it was still cold, oh so very cold. Cold radiated out from the Wall, sunk into your very bones. For a moment, Sam remembered sitting in the main hall, across a rickety, battered table from Jon, muttering about the cold, only to see Jon shrug and reply, They say, in time, you'll forget what it meant to be warm. I'm a northerner, it won't take me as long as it might take you, but in the end, we'll both be brothers in black, frozen straight through.

Sam shook aside the memory, drowning it in the chattering of his teeth as he reached out and tugged on the rope that told the winch operators at the top that someone wanted to come up. For a moment, Sam thought about walking the great switchback stair up to the top but discarded the notion as rank madness. Sam had lost almost two stone since coming to the Wall, but he knew he would never be anything but what he was.

He was a portly craven, no need to deny it. Father wasn't around to beat him for it anymore.

It was Dareon who threw open the door to the iron cage, steam rising off his shoulders as the sweat he worked up from working the winch cooled. For a moment, Sam regretted coming to the Wall, regretted not taking the stairs. Dareon had never outright bullied him, but the singer was not Jon, Grenn, Pyp, not even Matthar. Dareon was lithe and handsome and smooth of tongue; surely he would have some biting remark, something about catching a whale or some-such.

But, to Sam's shock, Dareon did no such thing. The boy just sighed, shrugged, and said, "You, too, eh, Sam?"

Sam frowned, hands shoved deep into his armpits, his teeth chattering from the cold. The iron cage had been winched up into a warming hut, he was bathed in the light of at least a dozen torches arrayed around a roaring fire, but the Wall seemed to master it all. "Wh…wha…" Sam took a deep breath, tried again. "What do y-y-you mean?"

Dareon sighed. "The Old Bear came up not a half-candle ago, right behind Ser Alliser. Marsh is up here, too, stomping around."

Sam gaped for a few moments, unsure what to say. Finally, he choked out, "The…the…the Lord Steward?"

Dareon gave another of his signature shrugs. "Yes, the Lord Steward himself. At this rate, I'll be as thin as Pyp before the night is done, working the winch as I have."

Sam tried to imagine himself as thin as Pyp, or as muscular as Grenn, and failed. In the end, he settled for, "Wh…wh…where did his…I mean…where did-"

Dareon jerked a thumb over his shoulder, towards the east. "Everyone else has gone that way." He shifted, pointed over Sam's shoulder to the west. "The Old Bear went that way."

Sam nodded, stepped out of the cage, huddled deeper into his furs and woolens and cloak, and turned west. He made it only a few steps before he heard Dareon's voice, calling his name. Sam skidded to a stop, steadied himself, turned back, blinking against the light of the torches. "What was that?"

Dareon's voice came back out of the light, sounding somehow…regretful. "I said…sorry about shouting at you, the other day. Ser Alliser gave me a right bollocking about it, and Grenn gave me a good thumping, and I deserved it. I just…" A heavy sigh, and though Sam couldn't see, he had looked away, Sam couldn't sworn he sensed a shrug. "We're all scared, you know? I mean, if…if…" Another sigh. "It doesn't matter, it's no excuse, just…I'm sorry, right?"

Sam didn't know what to say. He didn't even know what to think. He just…

We're all scared…

"It's…it…it's alright, Dareon, don't…don't worry about it." Sam didn't wait for a reply, just turned on his heel and headed off to the west, after the Lord Commander.

Even he wasn't entirely sure why.

The Old Bear noticed him first. "Tarly," the Lord Commander said, the word spoken in a deep rumble, as if from the depths of the deepest cavern.

Sam skidded to a halt in a cacophony of scattered stones and gravel and sand that his fellow crows scattered over the top of the Wall. For a moment, he didn't know what to do. He had headed off west in the hope that he wouldn't be noticed, that the Lord Commander might be gone, anything at all, I just want to be alone, thinking of anything but the flames, or, at least, he thought he had, but why did I come this way, then,but now the Old Bear was there and his black bulk was turning, Sam could somehow sense the old man's eyes on him, and he fell back on courtesies. He bowed, arms still wrapped tight around his body, hands shoved deep under his arms, and blurted, "My…my…my lord."

Lord Commander Mormont scoffed, a deep, bass boom. "Horn Hill is in the Reach, is it not, Tarly?"

"It…it is, my lord."

"Hmm…didn't your father beat King Robert in battle?"

Sam tried not to wince; gods knew he had heard the story often enough. "At the Battle of Ashford, my lord. He cut down Lord Cafferen in single combat."

That earned him another scoff, hard enough to bring blood boiling into Sam's ears, hot enough to make his skin burn. "That's what they all say, isn't it? Single combat. It's rarely so single."

Sam had long suspected as much, but he had never dared to point that out to Father, and he did not dare point it out now. Before, he had feared the back of Father's hand, Father was always ready with the back of his hand, but though now he knew he need fear no such thing, a part of him was not willing to risk it. All he could choke out, after many starts and stops, was, "If you say so, my lord, I wouldn't know."

"Hmph," was the reply, and then silence. Sam, not knowing what to do, turned to the right, looked out upon the wilderness, looked out upon the lands north of the Wall. Rangers swore that there was much and more out there, but all Sam could ever see, on the nights when he drew the watch, were trees, trees and hills and more trees and more hills.

Enough to drive a man mad…

"I thought I knew it, you know?"

Sam blinked, turned to the Lord Commander. "My lord?"

A heavy sigh, and then, "I thought I knew it, the lands beyond the Wall. I thought I knew all there was to know about it, or, at the very least, knew what was important to know. No grumpkins, no snarks, true, just leagues upon leagues of nothing but trees and hills and valleys and more leagues, all of it infested with wildlings. I mean, what else could there be?"

Sam closed his eyes, but somehow, it did not lessen the dread. They had all felt it, ever since that horrid night. Like the ground's gone out from beneath me feet, was how Pyp had put it. Like everything we knew was a damned lie, and the world was nothin' but a mummer's farce. The lands beyond the Wall were dark, true, foreboding, even, but they were known, and the only risks were the kind one could find anywhere else, the cruelties of nature and the vagaries of man.

But we know different now, don't we?

There is something out there.

And it hates us.

"You pissed yourself."

Sam saw no point in denying the accusation, after all, I admitted it at the time, didn't I, settled for sinking deeper into himself and replying, "Yes, my lord, I did."

Sam couldn't see the Lord Commander's face in the darkness, but he couldn't sworn that it was somehow kind. "Don't feel bad about it, lad; I did, too, remember? I'm shocked no one noticed."

Sam felt as if the Wall was crumbling beneath his feet. He could handle his own fear; it was a fact of life, just something to be dealt with.

He didn't know what to do with the fear of others.

"I still can't believe that," Sam finally managed to say.

The Old Bear laughed.

Sam had no idea what to do with that.

"Believe it or not, it's true; I wouldn't have said it if it wasn't. I've never been so frightened in all my life. I felt as if I was a little boy again, listening to my nan spin tales of what happened to little children who lied."

Sam hadn't had a nan, but he'd had a nanny, several of them, and they had spun tales, too. Tales of little boys who didn't measure up to what their fathers expected.

If Sam tried, he could almost forget his nannys' bruises, could almost forget the bruises they'd given him in her fear.

"I'm used to being afraid, my lord," he said, not entirely sure why.

The shadow of the Old Bear nodded. "Aye, but you're not stupid. You knew something was wrong right away, don't deny it, you're craven but you're not stupid, and only a fool would've seen what happened down in that room and not pissed himself."

"If…if…if you say, my lord…"

"Hmph…I do say, and…I…" Mormont heaved a great sigh, a sigh Sam felt in the tips of his toes, and turned. "We have to go out there."

Sam didn't respond. He couldn't, literally couldn't. The fear in his bones and the dread that lurked like a shadow in the darkness beyond the Wall was creeping up his legs, was sinking its ice cold claws into his heart.

"Aye," the Lord Commander said, "I keep having the same reaction myself. But it's true. We have to know what's going on, we have to find out what's happening, we…"

A long pause, which Sam was happy for.

The memory of Jafer Flowers's screeching as the thing he had become caught fire took an effort to push away. So much effort, in fact, that the Lord Commander's words were almost lost to the wind and the cold and the darkness.

"We have to talk to Mance…"

Sam shuddered, blinked up at Mormont. "My…my…" He stopped, swallowed hard, tried again. "My lord…?"

The shadow smiled, smiled and sighed. "Don't worry about it, Sam, at least for the nonce. Only the gods know if I can find enough men willing to go, after all…" The shadow heaved a final sigh. "Be that as it may, I have much to think upon. Thank you for coming up to talk to me."


The Old Bear laughed, clapped Sam on the shoulder hard enough to make Sam stumble, and passed beyond, back towards the iron cage and the winch. "I know," the Old Bear said, "you didn't come up here for me, but I still thank you for it. Remember, you may be afraid, but you're no craven, not when it counts, and most of all, you're not stupid. Jon was right about you." And with that, the Lord Commander was gone, vanished into the darkness of the night.

Leaving Sam, leaning against the wind, unable to even think about sleeping.

He stayed there until the dawn.

Shit's gonna get real, you guys...

Alright, so, first, sorry this is almost late, it was a day. Honestly, it's been a whole fucking week. The school year has started, so my wife is back at work all day, every day, and have you ever tried to do literally anything that requires concentration with a rambunctious toddler running around? It ain't easy. Plus, my sister called me yesterday and it turns out that our father died. And, like, my biological father was a real piece of garbage, you know, the usual, he was a drunk who used to beat my mom until my mom threw him out and divorced him and, like, I haven't seen him since I was eleven and haven't spoken to him since I was fourteen and the asshole died owing my mom over a hundred grand in child support which would have really come in handy a few times (like when I got really sick at four and my mom ate nothing but a sack of potatoes for two weeks so she could pay for my medicine), but, like...I dunno. I'm this weird combination of pissed off and empty and I'm still processing.

But I also love you guys, and I had this mostly ready, so I figured I'd give it a shot and sure enough, it helped to polish this up and post it for you. Sorry if it's not as proofread as well as I usually try to do.

Anyhoo, not much to say. A part of Jeor's reaction is because of changes to the timeline, and part of it is wishful thinking on my part. He was kind of an over-proud idiot in canon, and hey, what's fanfiction if you can't tweak things a wee bit?

Also, in a week or two, I'm hoping to move to MWF postings, so keep an eye out for that.

Moving on! In Monday's episode, Jon's a bit nervous, okay? Stay tuned!