The journey with Coldhands through the frozen and silent woods seems endless, and Bran spends much of it inside the body of Summer, though the direwolf is limping from the pain he still feels from the arrow that pierced his hind leg at Queenscrown. At other times, he enters Hodor's body, though Hodor tends to resist his presence at first. They are accompanied on their journey by ravens, though only half a dozen of the birds remain with them at any time, the rest of the flock flying ahead or traveling elsewhere, only to rejoin them at nightfall.
Summer is tantalized by the giant elk on which Coldhands rides, wanting to kill and eat it, but he doesn't "like the way that Coldhands smelled. Dead meat, dry blood, a faint whiff of rot. And cold. Cold all over." But now Coldhands stops to tell them they are being followed by men. He says he will take care of them and tells Meera to lead the others to a fishing village ahead. He returns the way they had come, followed by four ravens.
Meera is annoyed, and doesn't fully trust Coldhands: He has "too many secrets. I don't like it. And I don't like him." She is convinced that they are traveling in circles. "He hides his face, and will not speak a name. Who is he? What is he? Anyone can put on a black cloak. Anyone, or any thing. He does not eat, he never drinks, he does not seem to feel the cold." Bran admits this is true, and adds something else he has noticed: "The scarf over his mouth, it never gets all hard with ice, like Hodor's beard. Not even when he talks." Meera agrees: They have never seen his breath when he speaks.
Bran points out that he saved Sam and Gilly from the wights and that he is taking him to the three-eyed crow. But Meera has come to doubt this too, and asks why the three-eyed crow, who presumably has wings, can't come to them. She is also concerned about Jojen, who is steadily growing weaker. But they continue on the path Coldhands has told them to follow.
It is growing darker and they have not yet reached the village when Bran decides that the best way to find it is to let Summer do so. He slips into the wolf's skin and Summer races across the lake until he finds the scent of humans. But it is a smell of ashes, not of cooking food. They follow the wolf's lead until they reach the deserted village, where there are some buildings that have not been burned and that offer them shelter for the night.
The wildlings have left no food behind, and they eat what they have: crushed acorns. Their provisions are gone, and the lakes and streams are too frozen for Meera to catch fish. Bran returns to Summer, who locates a wolf pack, the leader of which is "an old male with a grizzled white muzzle and a blind eye." They are feeding on dead men, and Bran recognizes some of the bodies as black-cloaked members of the Night's Watch. "The direwolf did not care. They were meat. He was hungry." He confronts the one-eyed wolf and Summer/Bran recognizes him as a warg. They fight, but Summer prevails, and dines on the corpse of his choice.
Bran realizes that Summer now has a pack, but he protests:
No, the boy whispered, we have another pack. Lady's dead and maybe Grey Wind too, but somewhere there's still Shaggydog and Nymeria and Ghost. Remember Ghost?Then Bran awakes to the warmth and smell of a fire and roasting meat. Coldhands has returned with a pig. Coldhands is there, but he is not eating and he seems to fear the fire. Bran realizes that the dead men Summer and the wolves were feasting on had been killed by Coldhands. When he confronts the ranger with his realization, Coldhands doesn't deny it. And when Bran asks why his hands are black, he replies, "Once the heart has ceased to beat, a man's blood runs down into his extremities, where it thickens and congeals."
Meera challenges him: "Who is this three-eyed crow?" Coldhands says, "A friend. Dreamer, wizard, call him what you will. The last greenseer." Meera asks her brother what they should do, and Jojen replies, "We have come too far to turn back now, Meera. We would never make it back to the Wall alive. We go with Bran's monster, or we die."
He has left Pentos with Illyrio in a litter carried by eight huge draft horses, accompanied by a guard of eunuchs and a baggage train. They are headed for the Rhoyne, the river that will take Tyrion to Volantis. It is a slower journey than by sea, but a safer one for a dwarf with a price on his literal head. At the river he is to meet a man named Griff, who is supposed to take Tyrion to Volantis where they will meet Daenerys and facilitate her return to Westeros to claim the throne.
Illyrio tells Tyrion how he arranged for Daenerys to marry Khal Drogo. "The frightened child who sheltered in my manse died on the Dothraki sea, and was reborn in blood and fire. This dragon queen who wears her name is a true Targaryen." Now that she has taken Astapor, Yunkai, and Meereen, Illyrio says, "Mantarys will be next, if she marches west along the old Valyrian roads. If she comes by sea, well ... her fleet must take on food and water at Volantis."
It's a long way from Meereen to Volantis, Tyrion observes, but Illyrio is sure that those who survive the journey "through deserts, mountains, swamps, and demon-haunted ruins" will be the stronger for it. And at Volantis, Tyrion and Griff will have arranged for "fresh forces and sufficient ships to carry them all across the sea to Westeros." Tyrion is justifiably dubious, but Illyrio isn't about to reveal his motives for aiding Daenerys.
Tyrion asks how Illyrio became acquainted with Varys, and is told that they were boys together in Pentos. Varys had fled from arrest for thievery in Myr, and when he met Illyrio they set up a lucrative business: Varys would fence stolen goods to Illyrio who would sell them back at a profit to the people from whom they were stolen. Eventually, Varys trained a network of "mice" -- the "little birds" he relied on in King's Landing -- who would slip into places and read letters and ledgers and charts, gathering information that could be used for blackmail. "Secrets are worth more than silver or sapphires, Varys claimed." Illyrio grew wealthy, and Varys's talents led him to the service of Aerys Targaryen.
Tyrion asks about Griff and learns that he is a Westerosi-born sellsword, but that Illyrio trusts him. He also learns that the Golden Company, a hired army currently under contract to Myr, is marching toward Volantis, and that Illyrio plans to enlist them in Daenerys's cause. "They were exiles and sons of exiles, dispossessed and unforgiven ... yet formidable fighters still." As the Golden Company is made up of Westerosi, they will follow Daenerys on the hope of returning to their homeland. Tyrion also learns from Illyrio that Griff "has a son he dotes on. Young Griff, the boy is called. There never was a nobler lad."
The journey grows long and monotonous, since there are no towns or cities along the road, and Tyrion has nothing to do but eat, drink, and sleep. He does a great deal of all of those.