Dutifully searching for Sansa, she asks everyone she meets if they've seen "A highborn maid and very beautiful, with blue eyes and auburn hair. She may have been traveling with a portly knight of forty years, or perhaps with a fool. She is heading northeast, from Rosby to Duskendale, when she spots someone she hasn't asked yet, "a skinny boy on a piebald horse at the end of the village," but by the time she catches up to where he was, he has vanished.
She begins to wonder if Jaime has sent her on a wild goose chase, and to realize how enormous the task is: "She has no home to run to, no father, no mother, no brothers. She might be in the next town, or on a ship to Asshai; one seemed as likely as the other." She is also subject to the indignities of being a woman dressed in armor. "Had Brienne been a man, she would have been called big; for a woman, she was huge. Freakish was the word she had heard all her life."
She comes across a pair of hedge knights feasting on trout they have caught, and they offer her some, after the usual confusion over her gender. One of them is a braggart, Ser Creighton Longbough, who boasts about conquests he almost certainly had little or no part in, and the other is Ser Illifer the Penniless. She hesitates at first to join them, but she's bigger and better armed than either. Ser Illifer notices the shield she is carrying and calls it "a liar's shield," because the house that it represents has been killed off. It was one Jaime had taken from the armory at Harrenhal, and she had found it with the rest of the things he had prepared for her journey. She tells them that she had lost her own shield.
Ser Illifer has recognized her, however: "A woman freakish big and freakish strong who hides her own true colors. Creigh, behold the Maid o' Tarth, who opened Renly's royal throat for him." She protests once again that she didn't kill Renly, and when prompted, swears by the Seven, which satisfies Creighton and Illifer, who says, "Well, if she's lied, the gods will sort her out." And says she can take the first watch that evening.
While they are sleeping, she thinks about leaving them and riding on, but feels it would be dishonorable to leave them undefended. And when Illifer relieves her, she fights sleep, her mind wandering over the mystery of whether Sansa really helped Tyrion to murder Joffrey, but succumbs to weariness. When she wakes, the hedge knights are already up and preparing a squirrel for breakfast. "Hedge knights, she thought, old and vain and plump and nearsighted, yet decent men for all that. It cheered her to know that there were still decent men in the world."
She asks if anyone passed by while she was asleep, and Creighton says there were a few, including a "farm boy on a piebald horse," and boasts that he scared off some men who were eying their horses. They ride on together, and encounter a group on a religious pilgrimage, accompanying a wagon full of skulls and bones. They call themselves "sparrows," and are taking the bones to King's Landing "to Blessed Baelor, and [to] seek succor and protection from the king." The bones, they say, are those of murdered septons and septas. They ask Brienne and the men to accompany them, and Illifer says he will if he gets paid for it. They turn him down, so the trio continue on their way to Duskendale.
They next catch up with a merchant and his servants, accompanied by another hedge knight, who calls himself Ser Shadrich of the Shady Glen. "Some call me the Mad Mouse," and he shows Brienne the fierce, red-eyed white mouse on his shield. She tells them that she is looking for her sister, and gives her the usual description. Shadrich takes her aside and tells her he knows who her "sister" is: "You are not the only hunter in the woods. I seek for Sansa Stark as well." She hides her surprise and dismay, and pretends that she has never heard of "this Sansa Stark." He tells her that Varys "has offered a plump bag of gold for this girl you've never heard of," but if she will help him find her, he'll split the reward with her. He also recognizes her description of Dontos: "I pray your sister and her drunken fool are not mistaken for the Stark girl and Ser Dontos. That could be most unfortunate."
They reach an inn at nightfall, and Brienne pays for rooms for herself and Creighton and Illifer. Jaime has generously supplied money for her journey, as well as a parchment commanding others to help her, "signed in a childish hand by Tommen, the First of His Name, King of the Andals, the Rhoynar, and the first Men, and Lord of the Seven Kingdoms." The merchant, whose name is Hibald, stops at the inn, too. In the common room, Brienne is subjected to stares. "Despite chainmail, cloak, and jerkin, she felt naked." She overhears talk about how Jaime lost his hand, and corrects the rumor that it was "chewed off by a direwolf." The talk elicits her sympathy for Jaime: "His maiming had been monstrously cruel. It was one thing to slay a lion, another to hack his paw off and leave him broken and bewildered."
The talk depresses her, and she retreats to her room, where she takes out the sword Jaime had given her and named Oathkeeper. She recalls how it was forged from Sansa's father's sword, Ice: "'You'll be defending Ned Stark's daughter with Ned Stark's own steel,' Jaime had promised." She kneels and prays to the Crone to show her the way to Sansa. "She had failed Renly, had failed Lady Catelyn. She must not fail Jaime." She hears the others come up to bed, and when the inn grows quiet she makes her way down to the stables and rides off alone.
He has been reading for a long time in the cache of books he has found, and realizes that he should go see about Maester Aemon. So he takes a stack of books and scrolls and climbs up to the surface, where he sees men working to replace the switchback stairs that had burned during the attack by the wildlings. Dolorous Edd spots him and says that Jon wants to speak to him.
On his way to Jon's quarters, he encounters Gilly, who seems upset about something. When he enters Jon's solar, his office, Jon is reading a parchment and Mormon's raven is on his shoulder. When the raven spies him it cries out "Corn, corn!" and flies to him. Sam feeds it some kernels, but the raven pecks so hard at his hand that it breaks the skin, causing Sam to grow weak at the sight of blood.
Jon beckons him over to read the parchment, and Sam recognizes that it's a letter to King Tommen written in Maester Aemon's hand. Jon recalls when Tommen and Bran fought with wooden swords at Winterfell: "Yet Bran's dead, and pudgy pink-faced Tommen is sitting on the Iron Throne, with a crown nestled amongst his golden curls." Sam wants to tell Jon that Bran isn't dead, but is restrained by the oath he swore.
The letter is a plea for reinforcements, noting that the Night's Watch remains independent of domestic quarrels, and that even though Stannis's troops are there, "we are not his men...." Jon admits that he "gave Stannis food, shelter, and the Nightfort, plus leave to settle some free folk in the Gift," and Sam comments, "Lord Tywin will say it was too much." "Stannis says it's not enough," Jon replies, reflecting on how hard it is to please kings. Sam worries that if Tywin thinks their aid to Stannis is a betrayal, "it could mean the end of the Night's Watch." Sam has helped Stannis by sending ravens to the lords of the north, pleading for their support, but "the silence had been thunderous." And he notes that "The Lannisters have northmen of their own. Lord Bolton and his bastard."
Jon signs the letter, seals it, and gives it to Sam for Maester Aemon to dispatch for King's Landing. Sam says he will, then asks why Gilly was so upset. "Val sent her to plead for Mance again," Jon says. He told her that the decision on what to do about Mance was up to Stannis, and that he promised to speak to the king, though privately he doubts that it will do any good. Sam says Pyp has heard that Melisandre wants to burn Mance. Jon says he has heard it too: "King's blood, to wake a dragon." But Mance isn't royal, Jon says. "He has never worn a crown nor sat a throne. He's a brigand, nothing more."
And then he says, "I am sending Gilly away.... Her and the boy." Sam thinks it would be good to get her away from the Wall. But he changes the subject to what he has been reading: There was another boy who was named Lord Commander. "Osric Stark was ten when he was chosen, but he served for sixty years," he tells Jon, adding that this makes him only the "fifth youngest." But Jon is more interested in what the books say about the Others. Sam says he has found mentions of dragonglass used as a weapon, and stories about the Others riding dead animals. "The one that killed Small Paul was riding a dead horse, so that part's plainly true." There are also mentions of "giant ice spiders," he says. And that the dead must be burned or else they "rise again as their thralls."
Jon observes that they already knew these things. Sam says there was an account of Others being killed "with a blade of dragonsteel. Supposedly they could not stand against it." Jon and Sam agree this might be a reference to Valyrian steel. Jon asks, "Did you find who the Others are, where they come from, what they want?" Sam says he needs more time to research in the books.
"There is no more time," Jon tells him. "You need to get your things together, Sam." He is sending him and Maester Aemon to Oldtown. Sam is astonished, not only for himself, but also because Aemon is one hundred two years old. But Jon explains that the risk is greater for Aemon if he stays at the wall. Stannis knows that Aemon is a Targaryen, and that if Melisandre needs royal blood for her spells, there's no better source. Sam realizes the danger immediately. Jon explains:
"Dareon will join you at Eastwatch. My hope is that his songs will win some men for us in the south. The Blackbird will deliver you to Braavos. From there you'll arrange your own passage to Oldtown. If you still mean to claim Gilly's babe as your bastard, send her and the child on to Horn Hill. Elsewise, Aemon will find a servant's place for her at the Citadel."Sam is unnerved by the prospect of sailing such a long distance, and also by the possibility that he will have to take Gilly to Horn Hill himself, and meet his father there. He suggests that he doesn't really need to go at all, that Dareon could take Gilly to Oldtown instead. And he still needs to practice his archery, which Jon has commanded all members of the Watch to do. But Jon has something else in mind: "I need you to become my new maester."
Sam is appalled: "My lord, the Citadel ... they make you cut up corpses there." And he can't wear a chain around his neck. But Jon is firm: "You can. You will. Maester Aemon is old and blind. His strength is leaving him. Who will take his place when he dies?" He is puzzled at Sam's reluctance: "I was certain this would please you. There are so many books at the Citadel that no man can hope to read them all. You would do well there, Sam. I know you would." But all Sam can think about is that a maester must be a healer, and he faints at the sight of blood.
Jon reminds him that he is the one who killed an Other, who saw the wights and survived. And when Sam continues to dither, he grows firm: "Be quiet. You lied and schemed and plotted to make me Lord Commander. You will obey me. You'll go to the Citadel and forge a chain, and if you have to cut up corpses, so be it. At least in Oldtown the corpses won't object." But Sam keeps retreating into excuses: His father will dislike it because "the life of a maester is a life of servitude," and he can't disobey his father.
But Jon resorts to command. "It was Lord Snow who faced him now, grey eyes as hard as ice." He tells Sam that he has no father, that he belongs to the Night's Watch. He will leave an hour before sunrise. "And here's another order. From this day forth, you will not call yourself a craven. You've faced more things this past year than most men face in a lifetime. You can face the Citadel, but you'll face it as a Sworn Brother of the Night's Watch. I can't command you to be brave, but I can command you to hide your fears." Sam says he'll try, and Jon replies, "You won't try. You will obey." And when Sam asks if Maester Aemon knows of this plan, Jon replies, "It was as much his idea as mine."
When he leaves, Sam thinks of hiding, but instead he takes the letter to Maester Aemon, and blurts out his fear of his father. Aemon says his own father objected, but it was his grandfather who sent him to the Citadel. "The chain is heavy, Sam, but my grandsire had the right of it. So does your Lord Snow."
The next morning he helps Maester Aemon to the wagon in which he will ride, and is joined by Gilly and the baby. She has been crying. When Jon appears, Aemon tells him that he has left a book for him and marked a passage of interest. "Knowledge is a weapon, Jon. Arm yourself well before you ride forth to battle." Gilly urges him to find another wet nurse: "The boy ... Dalla's boy ... the little prince, I mean ... you find him some good woman, so he grows up big and strong." Jon promises that he will, and Gilly goes on, "Don't you name him. Don't you do that till he's past two years. It's ill luck to name them when they're still on the breast." And she grows angry when Jon calls her "my lady": "I'm a mother, not a lady. I'm Craster's wife and Craster's daughter, and a mother."
As Sam gets on his horse, he thinks, "This may be the last I ever see of Castle Black.... As much as he had once hated Castle Black, it was tearing him apart to leave it."