A horn is heard in the night, and it signals the arrival of some brothers from the Shadow Tower, some of whom are wounded. Jon recognizes their leader, Qhorin Halfhand, even though he has never seen him before. He earned his name when he lost all but the thumb and forefinger of one hand fending off a wildling with an axe. He had then thrust the hand into the face of the wildling, using the spurting blood to blind him and then killing him. Halfhand recognizes Jon, too, because he looks so much like his father.
Halfhand tells Mormont that they had an encounter with a wildling named Alfyn Crowkiller, who was leading a scouting party at the Wall. They lost four men and a dozen were wounded, but the casualties on the enemy side were heavier and included Crowkiller. Even so, Jon wonders, "why does Qhorin sound so grave, after such a victory?"
Outside, Jon hears some grumbling from the men, who think the mission is useless and are even considering mutiny. He examines the new dagger he has fashioned from the dragonglass he found buried in the ranger's cloak. He made a hilt from wood and bound it with twine to improve the grip. The blade was brittle, but sharper than steel. He had also made daggers for Grenn and Mormont, and had given the horn to Sam along with a spearhead and some arrowheads. Mormont has no idea who buried the cloak, though he admits it's possible that Benjen Stark did so for some reason.
When he returns to Mormont's tent, he hears Halfhand talking about what they have learned from prisoners they captured about Mance Rayder and his plans, and Mormont saying that the Wall must be alerted, as well as the king -- or rather the kings, "The true and false alike. If they would claim the realm, let them defend it." Halfhand also says that Rayder's forces plan to break through the wall, possibly using sorcery: "He is seeking something in the high cold places. He is searching for something he needs." He advocates sending out scouts:
"I would send fifteen men, in three parties of five. One to probe the Milkwater, one the Skirling Pass, one to climb the Giant's Stair. Jarman Buckwell, Thoren Smallwood, and myself to command. To learn what waits in these mountains."Mormont tells Halfhand to choose his men, and he chooses Jon.
Lancel tells Tyrion that Cersei is planning to send Tommen, disguised as a page, to the castle at Rosby to protect him from not only the mob but also Tyrion. That night, Tyrion sends a message to Jacelyn Bywater, telling him to intercept the detail moving Tommen and convey the boy to the castle himself, effectively transferring him from Cersei's hands to his own. Bronn, who is to carry the message to Bywater, suggests that he could do the job himself, but Tyrion doesn't really trust him: "Ser Jacelyn's gold cloaks would defend the boy; Bronn's sellswords were more apt to sell him to his enemies."
Then he asks Bronn to accompany him to the secret passage at Chataya's, but on the way he decides to skip the passage and go directly to Shae's. The streets are deserted because of the curfew that has been imposed. He finds Shae being serenaded by a singer known as Simon Silver Tongue, who greets him as "My lord Hand." Tyrion is angry that this stranger knows where Shae lives and that Tyrion visits her at night.
After making love to Shae he goes down to the garden, but she interrupts the moment of peace he has there by bringing Varys to him, disguised as "one of the begging brothers, ... in filthy patched robes, his bare feet crusty with dirt.... The smell of him would have gagged a rat." Tyrion doesn't recognize Varys at first, but Shae has seen right through his disguise. "A whore learns to see the man, not his garb, or she turns up dead in an alley," she tells him.
Varys has brought news that Cortnay Penrose is dead and Stannis has taken Storm's End. Realizing that Stannis will turn his attention to King's Landing now, he fears for Shae's safety. He tells her he might be able to move her into the castle, but she'd have to pose as a scullery maid in the kitchens. Shae is not happy about the plan and asks why he can't just take her into his own quarters. He tells her, "I was expressly forbidden to take you to court. When she mocks him for his fear of his father, he slaps her: "Damn you. Never mock me. Not you." She apologizes, but half-heartedly. He thinks, "I never meant to strike you. Gods be good, am I turning into Cersei."
And then he tells her the story of his marriage, at thirteen, to a girl who turned out to be a whore Jaime had hired for him. And he promises, "Once we're done with Stannis, you'll have another manse, and silks as soft as your hands." She says her hands won't be soft after scouring pots, but he assures her that he'll love them still: "they'll remind me how brave you were." So she accepts the plan.
Varys is waiting for him in the stables, and he tells the eunuch about his plan for Shae. Varys warns him that the kitchen is full of gossips and spies, and she will be catnip for the boys and men who work there. He suggests another plan: The maid to Lady Tanda's daughter, Lollys, has been stealing from her, and if he tells Lady Tanda the girl will be sacked so she'll need a new maid. Moreover, Lollys never leaves her room since she was raped, "so Shae will be out of sight ... but conveniently close, should you have need of comfort." Moreover, Varys knows a secret passage that leads to Tyrion's chambers, which surprises Tyrion.
As they ride, he asks how Cortnay Penrose died. Varys says the story is that Penrose "threw himself from a tower." Tyrion doesn't believe it, and Varys admits that there is no evidence that anyone broke into Penrose's chamber. Finally Varys asks if Tyrion believes "in the old powers." "Magic, you mean?" Tyrion scoffs at the idea "that Ser Cortnay was magicked to his death." Varys then decides to tell Tyrion about how he became a eunuch.
He "was an orphan boy apprenticed to a traveling folly" that performed "in all the Free Cities and from time to time in Oldtown and King's Landing." One day in Myr, a man came to the show and afterward bought Varys from his master. Varys was afraid he had been sold to the man for sex, but instead the man drugged Varys with something "that made me powerless to move or speak, yet did nothing to dull my senses." He then sliced off Varys's genitals while chanting. "I watched him burn my manly parts on a brazier. The flames turned blue, and I heard a voice answer his call, though I did not understand the words they spoke." Varys was then cast out on the streets where he learned to live as a thief, and discovered when he was older "that often the contents of a man's letters are more valuable than the contents of his purse."
"Yet I still dream of that night, my lord. Not of the sorcerer, nor his blade, nor even the way my manhood shriveled as it burned. I dream of the voice. The voice from the flames. Was it a god, a demon, some conjurer's trick? I could not tell you, and I know all the tricks. All I can say for a certainty is that he called it, and it answered, and since that day I have hated magic and all those who practice it. If Lord Stannis is one such, I mean to see him dead."Tyrion is silent for a while after Varys ends his story, and then says, "I'm sorry." Varys says he knows Tyrion still doesn't believe him, that he thinks Varys imagined the voice because of the drugs and the pain. Tyrion admits that he remains a skeptic, though he believes "there once were dragons. I've seen their skulls, after all."
They talk of other things: There has been no news from Lord Tywin or from Littlefinger. And then Tyrion begins to laugh, puzzling Varys. Tyrion has been overcome by the irony of the situation:
"Storm's End is fallen and Stannis is coming with fire and steel and the gods alone know what dark powers, and the good folk don't have Jaime to protect them, nor Robert nor Renly nor Rhaegar nor their precious Knight of Flowers. Only me, the one they hate." He laughed again. "The dwarf, the evil counselor, the twisted little monkey demon. I'm all that stands between them and chaos."
Edmure rides off to defend Riverrun against the Lannister forces. Brienne is miserable at not being allowed to go and fight, but the castle needs someone to defend it, and the garrison is weak and untrained. The castle is also full of women and children who have taken refuge within the walls. When Brienne asks Catelyn what they should do, Catelyn replies, "Our duty." And then she thinks bitterly of how she has always done her duty, agreeing to marry Brandon Stark and then his brother Ned after Brandon was killed. "I did so gladly, though I never saw Ned's face until our wedding day. I gave my maidenhood to this solemn stranger and sent him off to his war and his king and the woman who bore him his bastard because I always did my duty." But now she isn't really sure what her duty consists of.
Outside, someone is singing of the glory of battle, and Brienne complains, "Fighting is better than this waiting.... You don't feel so helpless when you fight." And when Catelyn points out that you can die in battle, Brienne remarks, "As ladies die in childbed. No one sings songs about them." Catelyn responds that "Children are a battle of a different sort." You want to keep all of them safe. "And who would keep you safe, my lady?" Brienne asks. The men would, Catelyn replies, but now they are all gone off, so "I suppose you must fill their place, Brienne." Brienne vows that she will try.
Later that day, word comes of Penrose's death and Storm's End falling into Stannis's hands. Catelyn wishes that news of this could be sent to Robb, and Maester Vyman suggests that a raven be sent to Ashemark with orders to send a rider to Robb. Catelyn observes that there is no news about what happened to Robert's bastard, who was being guarded by Penrose, and she wonders why Stannis wanted him so much. She asks what the boy looked like, and Brienne tells her, "He is seven or eight, comely, with black hair and bright blue eyes. Visitors oft thought him Lord Renly's own son." Catelyn realizes that Stannis plans "to parade his brother's bastard before the realm, so men might see Robert in his face and wonder why there is no such likeness in Joffrey." She thinks about her own children, who resembled the Tullys more than they did the Starks. Only Arya and Jon Snow resembled their father, and she wonders again who Jon's mother was.
Word comes that Lannister forces have been sighted across the river, and from the battlements they watch the attempts of the Lannisters to cross and the defensive forces to drive them back. Brienne provides a commentary on what is happening over the next day, when the enemy is successfully driven back several times. Catelyn decides to question Ser Cleos Frey, who had brought Cersei's response to Robb's peace terms and the team whose plot to free Jaime had been foiled. She has wine sent to him before they meet to loosen his tongue.
She asks him if he saw her daughters, and he stammers a yes that persuades her he is lying. Then he admits he saw Sansa, but says nothing about Arya. He also tells her that Cersei was not in court when the terms were delivered, and that Tyrion was the one who proclaimed them. She thinks again of how clever Tyrion is, wondering how he survived on the road after Lysa released him. She also observes that he had no part in Ned's execution, and remembers how he came to her defense when they were attacked by the mountain clans. She wishes she could trust him. But then she remembers the dagger that was used in the attack on Bran, and although he persistently denied having any part in the attack, even when he was locked in the sky cells at the Eyrie, she is still convinced that he was lying.
Five days later, word comes that the Lannisters have been repelled at every attempt to cross the river, and that they are marching southeast. That night there is celebration in the castle, but Catelyn is studying maps. "The gods had granted them victory after victory.... But if we are winning, why am I so afraid?"