They come across an inn that Arya reconizes: She and Sansa had been there, with Septa Mordane. Once again, as Sandor Clegane tells her to take care of the horses and goes inside, she thinks of escaping, but doesn't. And in the inn are some faces she recognizes: Polliver and the Tickler, men on her list. They recognize the Hound, and Arya worries that they will recognize her, too. They don't, although the Tickler gives her a long, scrutinizing look.
With them is a boy, a squire, who recognizes the Hound as Gregor Clegane's brother, and begins to mock him: "Is this the lost puppy Ser Gregor spoke of? ... The one who piddled in the bushes and ran off?" He is referring to Sandor's desertion during the fiery battle at King's Landing. The threat of conflict makes the innkeeper and the local customers disappear from the barroom.
Polliver tells the Hound that if he's looking for Gregor, he has been summoned to the city. "King Joffrey's dead, you know.... Poisoned at his own wedding feast." Arya hears this and wants to be happy, "but if Robb was dead, too, what did it matter?" Polliver goes on to say that Tyrion and "his little wife" killed Joffrey, and when he explains that Tyrion had married Sansa, Arya doesn't believe it. He goes on to tell of the capture of Harrenhal, and that Edmure Tully is being held hostage to force the surrender of Riverrun. He also says that Arya Stark has been found and is going to marry "Bolton's bastard," which is certainly news to Arya.
Sandor laughs at this last bit, of course. Then he asks if there are ships at Saltpans, which they can't answer. The Tickler, however, wonders if Sandor is planning to leave the country without seeing his brother, and suggests that they should take him to Harrenhal with them. Suddenly the fight begins. Sandor has drunk too much wine on an empty stomach, but he holds off Polliver. Arya beans the squire with a wine cup, and when she sees the Tickler pull a dagger tries to throw one at him, too, but misses.
As Polliver and the Tickler close in on Clegane, Arya looks around for another weapon, but her arm is seized by the squire, who has recovered. He has a sword in one hand and her arm in the other, but her hands are free and she pulls his knife from its sheath and stabs him in the belly. Clegane has been backed into a corner, but he manages to break free and kill Polliver. The Tickler is taken off guard for a moment. His weapon is smaller than Clegane's, but he ignores Arya, who stabs him not once but repeatedly, while asking the questions that the Tickler had asked while torturing his victims: "Is there gold hidden in the village? ... Is there silver? ... Is there food? Where is Lord Beric?" and so on until Clegane has to pull her off of him.
The Hound is bleeding profusely and dragging one leg. But he seizes the squire, who has pulled the knife from his belly and now begs for mercy. Clegane observed that the squire is as good as dead with his stomach wound, though it will take a long time for him to die. He turns to Arya and says, "This one is yours, she-wolf. You do it." Arya goes to Polliver and undoes his swordbelt, in which she finds Needle, the dagger he had taken from her. The Hound asks if she remembers where the heart is, and she stabs the squire in it.
He tells her they need to head to Saltpans and find a ship that will take them to the Vale. "Maybe Lady Lysa will marry you to her little Robert. There's a match I'd like to see." But his laugh ends in a groan, and he needs her help to mount his horse. They ride to the banks of the Trident, whose flood has ebbed, and find a place to camp. He has her boil some wine and find a clean stick that he can bite down on while she pours it into his wounds: first his neck, then his thigh, and finally "over the raw red flesh where his ear had been." He faints from the pain.
She binds his wounds while he's unconscious. Then she sits and recites the list of names, this time leaving out Polliver and the Ticker -- and, she realizes, the Hound. She tries to remember Mycah and what he had done to him, but can't even remember what he looked like. Finally she whispers, "The Hound," and then, "Valar morghulis." She falls asleep and dreams that she is "a wolf again, chasing a riderless horse up a hill with a pack behind her." But Clegane wakes her "just as they were closing for the kill."
He is weak and can barely stay on his horse, and soon stops for rest and falls asleep. He is feverish and the wound in his thigh smells funny to her. She thinks again of killing him, and draws Needle. But he wakes, and asks her if she remembers where the heart is. He tries to provoke her: "I killed your butcher's boy. I cut him near in half and laughed about it afterward." But she realizes that instead of laughing he is sobbing.
"And the little bird, your pretty sister, I stood there in my white cloak and let them beat her. I took the bloody song, she never gave it. I meant to take her too. I should have I should have fucked her bloody and ripped her heart out before leaving her for that dwarf." A spasm of pain twisted his face. "Do you mean to make me beg, bitch? Do it!"She saddles her horse as he calls out, "A real wolf would finish a wounded animal." She replies, "You shouldn't have hit me with an axe.... You should have saved my mother." She turns and rides away.
At Saltpans there are three ships, but she realizes she doesn't have the money. She sells the horse for less than it's worth, and heads for one of the ships. She finds the captain and tells him she wants "to go north, to the Wall." But he tells her she doesn't have enough money, and even if she did, the ship is heading for home, to Braavos.
She suddenly remembers the iron coin Jaqen H'ghar had given her, and presses it into his hand and says "Valar morghulis." "'Valar dohaeris,' he replied, touching his brow with two fingers. 'Of course you shall have a cabin.'"
Gilly is nursing Dalla's baby. On their long trek, Gilly and Sam had been overtaken by a company of black riders coming from the Shadow Tower to the west, and among them had been survivors of the attack on the Fist of the First Men. Sam had been so glad to see Dywen and Dolorous Edd among them that he wept.
They brought with them the news of the victory of Stannis's forces over the wildlings and the capture of Mance Rayder. But Sam was shocked when they reached Castle Black and witnessed the destruction and death, even though the towers bristled with banners from House Baratheon, House Florent, and many others, including one with a fiery heart that Sam didn't recognize.
Pyp and Grenn greeted him with delight, and explained that Stannis had arrived with Melisandre, having left the queen at Eastwatch with the fleet. Jon greeted him as well, and was pleased to see Gilly. But there is a sadness to him that Sam quickly learns the cause of: "He grieves for his wildling girl, an for his brothers." And although he has captured the Horn of Winter, Ser Alliser and Janos Slynt still regard him as a turncloak.
Jon observes the irony: "Craster had no love for Mance, nor Mance for Craster, but now Craster's daughter is feeding Mance's son." Val, who is with them too, says, "I've heard the queen's men saying that the red woman means to give Mance to the fire, as soon as he is strong enough." Jon tells her that Mance's desertion from the Night's Watch was a capital offense, and the Watch normally would have hanged him for that by now. But the decision now lies in Stannis's hands because "he's the king's captive, and no one knows the king's mind but the red woman."
Val wants to see Mance, but only Maester Aemon, who is treating his wounds, is allowed to be with him now. Jon promises to try to persuade them to let her visit. Sam follows Jon when he leaves, and Jon says, "You're more than fond of Gilly, aren't you?" Sam admits as much: "She ... she made me braver, Jon. Not brave, but ... braver." But when Jon reminds him of his vows, he knows that she can't stay with him. He wonders if he could write to his father and say that he had gotten Gilly pregnant, and ask if she could stay with his mother and sisters at Horn Hill. Jon approves of the idea in theory, but adds that Gilly had better be able to carry off the pretense convincingly: "From what you've told me of Lord Randyll, I doubt he would take kindly to being deceived."
Jon is heading to the practice yard, and Sam worries that Jon's leg is not healed enough for the exercise. But Jon has nothing else to do because he has been removed from duty under suspicion of being a turncloak. Sam protests that he should be treated as a hero for seizing the Horn and capturing Mance's son. Jon replies, "All I did was protect Val and the babe against looters when the wildlings fled, and keep them there until the rangers found us." Ser Alliser blames him for not killing Mance when he had the opportunity.
Ser Alliser's continued animosity toward Jon is exacerbated by his inability to become Lord Commander of the Night's Watch. "With his noble birth, his knighthood, and his long years in the Watch, Ser Alliser Thorne might have been a strong challenger for the Lord Commander's title, but almost all the men he'd trained during his years as master-at-arms despised him." In the voting for the title, he had placed sixth on the first day and lost votes on the second. He has withdrawn in support of Lord Janos Slynt.
So Jon is now just "the bastard who killed Qhorin Halfhand and bedded with a spearwife." They call him a warg, too, but he says, "How can I be a warg without a wolf, I ask you?" Ghost is still missing, and Jon doesn't even dream of him anymore. "All my dreams are of the crypts, of the stone kings on their thrones. Sometimes I hear Robb's voice, and my father's, as if they were at a feast. But there's a wall between us, and I know that no place has been set for me."
Sam has taken a pledge not to reveal that Bran is alive, and at times like these, he wishes he could console Jon with that information: "He's with friends, and they're going north on a giant elk to find a three-eyed crow in the depths of the haunted forest." But it sounds so crazy to him now that he almost doesn't believe it himself. Still he swore three times to keep that secret: once to Bran, once to Jojen Reed, and once to Coldhands. So he changes to subject to the Lord Commander's position, assuring Jon that Janos Slynt will never be named to it. Jon is convinced otherwise, however, and takes out his frustrations in sword practice. He tells Sam to excuse him: "I need to his someone very hard with a sword." He spends his days in the practice yard training the younger recruits because no one has named a new master-at-arms.
Sam hopes that he is right and Jon is wrong. A candidate must receive two-thirds of the votes of the Sworn Brothers to be named Lord Commander, and no one has come near. Slynt is still behind Ser Denys Mallister of the Shadow Tower and Cotter Pyke of Eastwatch-by-the-Sea, though he has been gaining votes steadily. Sam has been keeping careful track of the vote count.
There is another vote that night after supper, before which another candidate, Bowen Marsh, withdraws his name in favor of Janos Slynt. Sam looks around for Jon, but he isn't there. Sam assists Maester Aemon in counting the votes. Slynt is third, behind Ser Denys and Cotter Pyke, but the former's count is down ten votes from the previous day, and the latter's is down twenty votes. Later, Sam tells Pyp and Grenn that they should try to persuade one of them to withdraw, to prevent Slynt from winning. Pyp points out that Sam is "A lord's son, the maester's steward, and Sam the Slayer." He should be the one to do the persuading. But Sam says he's "too craven to face them."
Jon is in the midst of sparring with Satin when Melisandre, accompanied by half a dozen soldiers, appears and tells him that Stannis wants to speak with him. He excuses himself, changes into fresh clothes, and meets her at the base of the Wall. As they ride up in the cage, he senses how warm she is. "She even smells red," he thinks. And when the wind blows her robes, he asks if she is cold. She touches his cheek with her hand and he feels the warmth: "'That is how life should feel,' she told him. 'Only death is cold.'"
She presents him to Stannis as "the Bastard of Winterfell," and Jon notes how gaunt and clenched his manner is.
Jon found himself remembering something Donal Noye once said about the Baratheon brothers. Robert was the true steel. Stannis is pure iron, black and hard and strong, but brittle, the way iron gets. He'll break before he bends. Uneasily he knelt, wondering why this brittle king had need of him.Stannis addresses him as "Lord Snow," eliciting Jon's usual protest, "I am no lord, sire," and adding that he is aware of the reputation as turncloak, coward, murderer and oathbreaker that has preceded him. Stannis adds that he is supposed to be a warg and a skinchanger, too. Jon admits that he had a direwolf named Ghost, but he hasn't seen him for a long time. He explains about Qhorin Halfhand and Ygritte, too, "but I swear to you on my father's name that I never turned my cloak."
Stannis says he believes him, which startles Jon into asking why. "I know Janos Slynt. And I knew Ned Stark as well. Your father was no friend of mine, but only a fool would doubt his honor or his honest. You have his look." He also tells him he knows about the dragonglass dagger and that Jon held the gate at Castleblack. Jon says that Ghost found the dagger, and Donal Noye held the gate. Stannis persists in his attempts to praise Jon, noting the seizing of "this magic horn" and the capture of Rayder's wife and son. Again, Jon demurs: Rayder's wife died, and Val is her sister, and she and the baby didn't need capturing after Stannis's troops succeeded and the skinchanger "went mad when the eagle burned." He turns to Melisandre and says that the last is said to have been her doing.
He presents Stannis with Val's request to see Mance. Stannis says, "You rode with these wildlings. Is there any honor in them, do you think?" Jon says it's "their own sort of honor." Stannis quizzes him on Rayder, whom Jon believes to have honor, and on Rattleshirt, whom Jon calls "Treacherous and blood-thirsty," and on Tormund, who escaped. "Tormund Giantsbane seemed to me the sort of man who would make a good friend and a bad enemy, Your Grace," Jon replies.
Then Stannis asks, "What of you?" and when he answers, "I am a man of the Night's Watch," replies, "Words. Words are wind." Then he asks, "Why do you think I abandoned Dragonstone and sailed to the Wall, Lord Snow?" Again Jon protests that he is no lord, and says that he must have come because they sent for him, although he doesn't know why he took so long about it. This amuses Stannis, who gives the credit to Davos Seaworth, who said "I was trying to win the throne to save the kingdom, when I should have been trying to save the kingdom to win the throne." And this is where he'll find his foe, he says.
But he needs Jon's help, he now says. The north is in chaos after Robb's death. "What is needed is a Lord of Winterfell. A loyal Lord of Winterfell." There isn't a Winterfell anymore, Jon says, after Theon Greyfoy destroyed it. But Stannis says the building can be rebuilt. What he needs now is "a son of Eddard Stark" to win the northmen to his banner. Jon realizes what Stannis is proposing, and protests that he is a Snow, not a Stark. But Melisandre points out, "A king can remove the taint of bastardy with a stroke, Lord Snow." When she uses the epithet Alliser Thorne had given him, it suddenly sounds real. But he protests that he made his vow to the Night's Watch. "I knelt before a heart tree and swore to hold no lands and father no children." Melisandre protests, "R'hllor is the only true god. A vow sworn to a tree has no more power than one sworn to your shoes."
The temptation begins to take hold, and he recalls when he was "too young to understand what it meant to be a bastard," that he used to dream of being Lord of Winterfell. But later, he realized that Winterfell would go to the legitimate descendants of Eddard Stark, and to dream of having the title himself "seemed disloyal, as if he were betraying them in his heart, wishing for their deaths." Robb, Bran, Rickon, Sansa and Arya are gone now, he thinks. And all he has to do is break his vows to the Night's Watch, and one other thing: "To claim his father's castle, he must turn against his father's gods."
Stannis continues: Melisandre has seen the revival of the scattered wildlings in her fires. "This Tormund Thunderfist is likely re-forming them even now, and planning some new assault. And the more we bleed each other, the weaker we shall all be when the real enemy falls upon us." Jon is aware of that, too. And now Stannis tells him that he has been talking with Mance Rayder and with Rattleshirt and others of the wildling captives. And he proposes to let the wildlings settle on this side of the Wall if they will "swear me their fealty, pledge to keep the king's peace and the king's laws, and take the Lord of Light as their god." Together, they will form an alliance against the Others.
Jon is aware of the realities, of the volatility and unruliness of the wildlings as subjects and neighbors. "Yet when he weighed Ygritte's red hair against the cold blue eyes of the wights, the choice was easy." He agrees to Stannis's plan. But then Stannis proposes to seal the new alliance with a marriage: "I mean to wed my Lord of Winterfell to this wildling princess," meaning Val. Jon laughs at the idea of any of the free folk entering into an arranged marriage. But Stannis insists that "she is part of the price you must pay, if you want your father's name and your father's castle."
Jon asks for time to think it over. Stannis agrees, impatiently, and tells him not to discuss it with anyone else. "But when you return, you need only bend your knee, lay your sword at my feet, and pledge yourself to my service, and you shall rise again as Jon Stark, the Lord of Winterfell."