Seated on Dancer in his special saddle, Bran rides down the center aisle of the Great Hall, welcoming the visitors to the harvest celebration. After his welcoming speech, Ser Rodrik and Maester Luwin praise him, and the servants begin bringing in an abundance of food -- a sharp contrast to the starvation down in King's Landing.
As the feast goes on, and the crowd gets noisier and more drunken, Bran feels the heat of the room and grows drowsy. He drifts into a "waking dream," in which he is a wolf in the cool of the godswood, until Ser Rodrik brings him back to reality by observing that he isn't eating. He sips some wine and recalls that the cup he is using once belonged to his father. He thinks of the happier time when his father was alive and they were all together at the harvest banquet -- except Jon, who didn't sit at the high table. He recalls all of those who were there and are no longer alive, or else are out fighting the war.
Some late guests arrive from the marshes of the Neck, and Little Walder dismisses them scornfully as "Frogeaters" and "Mudmen." They include the children of Howland Reed, Jojen and Meera. They swear their loyalty to the Starks. The girl, Meera, says that her brother would like to see the direwolves, and Rickon tells them they are in the godswood. Bran assures them that Summer won't harm them if he's there, and that he'll keep Shaggydog under control.
Finally, Bran is ready to go and signals that he wants to be lifted into the basket on Hodor's back. "The folk of Winterfell had seen this sight half a hundred times, but doubtless it looked queer to the guests, some of whom were more curious than polite. Bran felt the stares." In bed, he thinks about the knights among whom he once hoped to be counted, and about his father's story of Ser Arthur Dayne, whose sword, Dawn, was "forged from the heart of a fallen star." His father had said that Howland Reed saved him from being killed by Dayne.
But though he really wants to dream of knights, he dreams once again of the wolves, who hear the noise of the banquet and are restless. Then in the dream he senses the approach of Jojen and Meera. She carries a knife for protection, but Jojen says, "He won't hurt me. This is not the day I die." When Jojen reaches out and touches the wolf's muzzle, "the wood dissolved and the very ground turned to smoke beneath his feet and swirled away laughing, and then he was spinning and falling, falling, falling...."
She is on her way with twenty of Robb's best men and five noblemen to talk with Renly Baratheon, traveling overland and staying clear of towns. She hadn't wanted to undertake this diplomatic mission, but Robb had persuaded her that it's necessary. It has become clear that they are not going to receive any help from her sister, Lysa, so he needs to know as much as he can about Renly and whether they can make common cause against the Lannisters. She wishes that she were riding north to Winterfell instead of south.
A half-day away from Renly's encampment they are met by a party of his outriders, led by Ser Colen of Greenpools. She tells him, "I come as envoy from my son, Robb Stark, the King in the North, to treat with Renly Baratheon, the King in the South." Ser Colen corrects her: "King Renly is the crowned and anointed lord of all the Seven Kingdoms, my lady." She wonders if she is being escorted to Renly or if she has been captured, but she sees no option but to trust him.
When they get nearer to Renly's camp she is surprised by the great number of men and the weaponry under his command. "Near all the chivalry of the south had come to Renly's call, it seemed." But even more surprising to Catelyn as they get closer is that a tournament is going on. "This is madness, Catelyn thought. Real enemies on every side and half the realm in flames, and Renly sits here playing at war like a boy with his first wooden sword."
Then she sees Renly himself, "a ghost in a golden crown" because of his resemblance to the young Robert Baratheon. Next to him is his queen, Margaery. Their marriage cemented the alliance between the Baratheons and the Tyrells -- Lord Mace Tyrell was her father. She was Robb's age, and Renly was only twenty-one.
The melee is drawing to a close, and only four combatants are left on the field, one of whom is Loras Tyrell, the queen's brother, known as the Knight of Flowers. Finally there are only two: Loras and a knight in cobalt blue armor. They are well-matched, but in the end they collide and fall from their horses.
Loras Tyrell, on the bottom, took the brunt of the impact. The blue knight pulled a long dirk free and flicked open Tyrell's visor. The roar of the crowd was too loud for Catelyn to hear what Ser Loras said, but she saw the word form on his split, bloody lips. Yield.King Renly summons the blue knight before him, and the knight kneels. But the crowd is mostly silent, and Catelyn hears a man say, "A vile trick, pulling the lad down." Catelyn asks Ser Colen, "who is this man, and why do they mislike him so?" Colen informs her that the blue knight isn't a man: "That's Brienne of Tarth, daughter to Lord Selwyn the Evenstar." She is also known as Brienne the Beauty, he says, but nobody calls her that to her face.
Renly proclaims Brienne the champion and offers her any reward within his power to give. She asks to be named one of the seven in Renly's Rainbow Guard, and he grants her request. She removes her helmet and Catelyn gets a good look at her:
Beauty they called her ... mocking. The hair beneath the visor was a squirrel's nest of dirty straw, and her face .... Brienne's eyes were large and very blue, a young girl's eyes, trusting and guileless, but the rest ... her features were broad and coarse, her teeth prominent and crooked, her mouth too wide, her lips so plump they seemed swollen. A thousand freckles speckled her cheeks and brow, and her nose had been broken more than once. Pity filled Catelyn's heart. Is there any creature on earth as unfortunate as an ugly woman?But Brienne doesn't seem to think she's unfortunate. She's delighted at the king's gift, and she smiles as she looks down on him -- she's taller than he is.
Ser Colen takes this opportunity to present Catelyn to the king, though she corrects him when he says she is the envoy of the Lord of Winterfell: "Lord of Winterfell and King in the North, ser." Renly presents her to Margaery, who expresses her condolences on the loss of her husband. Renly promises, "When I take King's Landing, I'll send you Cersei's head." Catelyn replies, "It will be enough to know that justice has been done, my lord." Brienne interrupts here to correct her: "Your Grace.... And you should kneel when you approach the king." Catelyn retorts that there's not much difference between "lord" and "grace," and that anyway her son is a king, too. Though some of Renly's court don't like that, he just laughs, and asks when Robb plans to march on Tywin Lannister at Harrenhal.
Catelyn knows better than to give away Robb's plans, and just says that she isn't on his war councils. When she mentions that Jaime Lannister is being held prisoner at Riverrun, there is some comment on the fact that he is still alive, and Lord Randyll Tarly suggests that it reveals weakness that Robb hasn't killed Jaime and that he doesn't come to pay homage himself, "rather than hiding behind his mother's skirts. Catelyn retorts that Robb is at war, "not playing at tourney." Renly takes this in good humor and suggests that Randyll is "overmatched."
Catelyn is shown to an opulent pavilion. "He does not stint himself, this Renly, she thought as she looked about. Small wonder this host moves so slowly." She changes for the king's feast, which takes place in the castle of Lord Caswell. She sees Brienne again, seated at the high table. "Out of armor, her body seemed ungainly, broad of hip and thick of limb, with hunched muscular shoulders bur no bosom to speak of. And it was clear from her every action that Brienne knew it, and suffered for it." The food is so rich that Catelyn eats sparingly. She observes that "From time to time, King Renly would feed Margaery some choice morsel off the point of his dagger, or lean over to plant the lightest of kisses on her cheek, but it was Ser Loras who shared most of his jests and confidences."
Most of all, she notices how young the lords of Renly's court are. "It is all a game to them still, a tourney writ large, and all they see is the chance for glory and honor and spoils. They are boys drunk on song and story, and like all boys, they think themselves immortal." Then Renly asks her to walk with him a while. Brienne says she will accompany them for protection, but Renly tells her that he doesn't need protecting as long as they're at Lord Caswell's castle. She appears to be hurt by this.
Outside, he asks if Ser Barristan Selmy is with Robb at Riverrun. This surprises Catelyn, who hasn't heart of his ouster by Joffrey and his replacement by the Hound. Renly says Barristan has disappeared, and that he had hoped he might join his service. "I thought perhaps he had gone to Riverrun instead." He also tells her that he had offered Ned his support if he would depose Joffrey, but Ned told him he had sworn to protect Robert's children. When Renly heard this, he says, he knew that he had to flee. Catelyn reflects that if he had stayed to support Ned, he would be alive.
He takes Catelyn to the top of the castle tower and shows her the campfires in all directions. He has heard that Robb commands forty thousand troops, and boasts that he has twice that here, plus another ten thousand at Highgarden, a garrison at Storm's End, and expects the Dornishmen to join forces with him too. And he tells her not to forget the sailors commanded by his brother Stannis.
She reminds him that Stannis has made a claim to the throne himself, but Renly dismisses this. "Men respect Stannis, even fear him, but precious few have ever loved him." As for Stannis's claim as elder brother, Renly observes that the Baratheon claim to the throne was obtained by Robert through force, not through kinship. And he gestures toward the troops below as evidence of his claim. Then he tells her that if Robb will support him, he'll let him "go on calling himself King in the North if he likes, so long as he bends the knee and does me homage as his overlord." If Robb will join him, the war will be over quickly.
Then they interrupted by a messenger from Storm's End. Stannis is laying siege to the city.
It has been raining for six days and everyone is miserable and hungry. But they have received good news: Although every village they have seen has been deserted, Craster is still at his keep. "Thoren Smallwood swore that Craster was a friend to the Watch, despite his unsavory reputation." He presides over an all-female household: his wives and daughters, and some of them are both. So Mormont sends Jon to ride down the line of the expedition and remind all of the officers that Craster's women are off-limits.
Midway down the train he finds Samwell, and tells him that "Craster's Keep is just ahead. If the gods are good, he'll let us sleep by his fire." But Sam has heard sinister things about Craster and his wives, and is not looking forward to the visit. On the way back Jon is joined by Ghost, who has been foraging on his own.
Craster's Keep is "a midden heap, a pigsty, an empty sheepfold, and a windowless daub-and-wattle hall scarce worthy of the name. There isn't enough room in the hall for the two hundred men on the expedition, but Jon estimates that from thirty to fifty of them can sleep inside. The rest will have to pitch tents in the compound yard, which is half "ankle-deep puddles" and half "sucking mud. Another dismal night was in prospect." But even the hall is "squalid" and "foul-smelling."
Craster himself doesn't fit Jon's imagining of what the wildlings are like from "Old Nan's tales of the savage folk who drank blood from human skulls. Craster seemed to be drinking a thin yellow beer from a chipped stone cup. Perhaps he had not heard the stories." He tells Mormont that he hasn't seen Benjen Stark for three years, though he had seen Ser Waymar Royce, for whom Benjen had been searching. Mormont offers to provide Craster and his wives with an escort to the Wall, but Craster is content to stay. What he really wants is some "good southron wine" and a new axe.
Mormont tells him of the undead men who had attacked them, but Craster scoffs and says he doesn't have that kind of trouble. "If wights come walking, I'll know how to send them back to their graves." Jarmen Buckwell asks about Mance Rayder, and Craster says that he's the one behind the empty villages. "Might be that I could tell you where to seek Mance Rayder. If I had a mind." He asks if they have someone who can draw a map, and Jon suggests Sam. Mormont tells Jon to send Sam in after he's eaten and to ask someone else to bring him his axe as a gift for Craster.
Jon delivers the message about the axe, and goes in search of Sam. He hears a cry of "Wolf!" and runs to find Ghost with a rabbit in his mouth and one dead on the ground. He tells the woman not to be afraid as Ghost bolts down the rabbit, which he realizes came from a small wooden hutch that Ghost must have broken into. He asks the woman, who turns out to be a girl about his age, if she is one of Craster's daughters. "Wife now," she says, putting her hand on her pregnant belly. She says she was going to breed the rabbits because they don't have any sheep left. He promises that he'll ask Lord Mormont to make good on the loss.
Two of Jon's enemies appear: Lark the Sisterman (meaning that he comes from the islands known as the Three Sisters) and Chett, whom Sam replaced as steward to Maester Aemon. They scare off the girl, but Lark slips in the mud when he tries to take the remaining rabbit. Ghost brings it to Jon. He finds Sam feeding the ravens, and tells him that he's wanted to draw a map. But first he shares the rabbit with Sam.
In the morning the rain has stopped and everything is covered with ice. As he's reflecting on the beauty of it, he hears a voice call him. It is the girl from last night, wearing Sam's cloak. He said she should see him and gave her his cloak so no one would question her. She tells him that Craster is still passed out from all the wine he drank last night and will probably sleep through the day. He says she should go back; they were forbidden to talk to the women. But she asks him to take her with him. Her name is Gilly, she says, and she fears for her baby. "Nella says it's to be a boy, and she's had six and knows these things. He gives the boys to the gods."
Jon asks what gods. "'The cold gods,' she said. 'The ones in the night. The white shadows.'" He asks what color their eyes are, and she tells him, "Blue. As bright as blue stars, and as cold." She wants to go as far as the Wall, but he tells her that they're going in the other direction. "We ride north, after Mance Rayder and these Others, these white shadows and their wights. We seek them, Gilly. Your babe would not be safe with us." He can't even promise that they will come back this way. Disappointed, she runs off, as Jon curses Sam for sending her to him.
He goes to the hall where Mormont tells him that he means to leave within the hour. Behind the hall he finds Sam with Gilly, who is giving him back his cloak. She runs away when she sees him. Jon tells him what a bad idea it was to send her to him, but when he walks away he feels "as confused as he was angry."
As he rides beside Mormont, Jon brings up the fact that Craster has no sons. "He gives his sons to the wood," he says. After a pause, Mormont says, "Yes." He admits that all the rangers know. "But the wildlings serve crueler gods than you or I. These boys are Craster's offerings. His prayers, if you will." Jon admits that one of Craster's wives told him because she was frightened and thought he could help.
"The wide world is full of people wanting help, Jon. Would that some could find the courage to help themselves. Craster sprawls in his loft even now, stinking of wine and lost to sense. On his board below lies a sharp new axe. Were it me, I'd name it 'Answered Prayer' and make an end."On the other hand, the rangers had always depended on Craster's Keep for shelter when they needed it. But Jon should take it as a lesson, he says. "We cannot set the world to right. That is not our purpose. The Night's Watch has other wars to fight."
The reason the villages are empty, Craster told him, is that Mance Rayder is gathering his people in the Frostfangs, "a wilderness of stone and ice." And the only reason Mormont can see for that is that he's planning to invade south of the Wall. The Night's Watch, he says, is weaker than it has ever been, and Winterfell has been left vulnerable because of the war to the south. "The wildlings may never again have such a chance as this." They must find him and stop him.
"Three hundred, thought Jon, against the fury of the wild."
Theon is inspecting his new longboat, but he's also inspecting the beautiful woman who is there admiring it. She is a few years older than he is, he guesses, and he begins to flirt outrageously with her. "My cock's gone hard as a mast for you," he tells her, and she feels him through his breeches to confirm the fact. But she tells him that she's married and expecting a child. That's no impediment to Theon, and evidently not to her, for they continue to exchange bawdy witticisms. She is Esgred, she says, daughter of Ambrode and wife of Sigrin. He recognizes the names as those of shipbuilders. They talk about the ship, and she says, "She's a sea bitch, this one." So he tells her he'll name the ship Sea Bitch.
Even though she has claimed to be newly wed and carrying a child, she grows even bolder, at one point going so far as to undo the lacing of his fly. He asks her to come back to Pyke with him, and she agrees. "Esgred is yours, sweet prince. Take me to your castle." As they walk to the inn where he has left his horse, he notices the respectful bows of people as they pass. "They have finally learned who I am, he thought." She too, seems to be well known and respected, for she exchanges ribald comments with a seafarer about his pregnant wife. She also gives him advice about choosing a crew for his ship.
On the way, they pass the Myraham, and the captain's daughter whom he bedded on the voyage calls out to him plaintively, but he ignores her. At the inn, he calls for his squire, Wex, who is mute, which pleases Theon since the boy can't gossip about him. He orders Wex to saddle the horses, and they mount his stallion, which he has named Smiler: "I knew a man once who told me that I smiled at the wrong things." She rides in front of him, but she keeps removing his hand from her breast.
She asks if his father will welcome her, and he says, "He scarcely welcomed me, his own blood, the heir to Pyke and the Iron Islands." "Are you?" she asks, saying that she has heard he has uncles, brothers, and a sister.
"My brothers are long dead, and my sister ... well, they say Asha's favorite gown is a chainmail hauberk that hangs down past her knees, with boiled leather smallclothes beneath. Men's garb won't make her a man, though. I'll make a good marriage alliance with her once we've won the war, if I can find a man to take her. As I recall, she had a nose like a vulture's beak, a ripe crop of pimples, and no more chest than a boy."As for his uncles, they're no threat. "Aeron is drunk on seawater and sanctity" and "Victarion is like some great grey bullock, strong and tireless and dutiful, but not like to win any races." And his uncle Euron, he says, may be dead.
When they reach the castle, the hounds come running out and greet her, not Theon. And when the stableman comes out he says, "Lady Asha. You're back." Theon is, of course, floored. "Why didn't you tell me?" he says. She replies, "I wanted to see who you were first. And I did."
Miserably embarrassed, he has to face her at dinner, where she throws back at him everything he said and did. She isn't married to Sigrin, and Esgred was the name of the first ship he built. As for being married and with child, she calls for someone to throw her an axe, which she uses to split the plate he is eating from in two. "'There's my lord husband.' His sister reached down inside her gown and drew a dirk from between her breasts. 'And here's my sweet suckling babe.'" The Great Hall echoes with laughter at his expense, and even his father smiles.
When the meal ends, Lord Balon summons them to discuss plans. When he ventures, "I have some suggestions --" his father cuts him off with "When I require your counsel I shall ask for it." He tells Theon that he is to take eight longships and "harry the Stony Shore, raiding the fishing villages and sinking any ships you chance to meet." He will be accompanied by Aeron and Dagmer Cleftjaw. Theon realizes that he is being assigned a lowly task and that his father doesn't trust him to do that without help. Asha is the one who is to command thirty longships and attack the castle at Deepwood Motte.
After they have done this, Balon says, the main thrust will be up to Victarion. The other attacks will have drawn a response from Winterfell. "Robb the boy will find himself caught like a rat in a bottle."