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Are we there yet?
Bran never said the words aloud, but they were often on his lips as their ragged company trudged through groves of ancient oaks and towering grey-green sentinels, past gloomy soldier pines and bare brown chestnut trees. Are we near? the boy would wonder, as Hodor clambered up a stony slope, or descended into some dark crevice where drifts of dirty snow cracked beneath his feet. How much farther? he would think, as the great elk splashed across a half-frozen stream. How much longer? It’s so cold. Where is the three-eyed crow?
Swaying in his wicker basket on Hodor’s back, the boy hunched down, ducking his head as the big stableboy passed beneath the limb of an oak. The snow was falling again, wet and heavy. Hodor walked with one eye frozen shut, his thick brown beard a tangle of hoarfrost, icicles drooping from the ends of his bushy mustache. One gloved hand still clutched the rusty iron longsword he had taken from the crypts below Winterfell, and from time to time he would lash out at a branch, knocking loose a spray of snow. “Hod-d-d-dor,” he would mutter, his teeth chattering.
The sound was strangely reassuring. On their journey from Winterfell to the Wall, Bran and his companions had made the miles shorter by talking and telling tales, but it was different here. Even Hodor felt it. His hodors came less often than they had south of the Wall. There was a stillness to this wood like nothing Bran had ever known before. Before the snows began, the north wind would swirl around them and clouds of dead brown leaves would kick up from the ground with a faint small rustling sound that reminded him of roaches scurrying in a cupboard, but now all the leaves were buried under a blanket of white. From time to time a raven would fly overhead, big black wings slapping against the cold air. Elsewise the world was silent.
Just ahead, the elk wove between the snowdrifts with his head down, his huge rack of antlers crusted with ice. The ranger sat astride his broad back, grim and silent. Coldhands was the name that the fat boy Sam had given him, for though the ranger’s face was pale, his hands were black and hard as iron, and cold as iron too. The rest of him was wrapped in layers of wool and boiled leather and ringmail, his features shadowed by his hooded cloak and a black woolen scarf about the lower half of his face.
Behind the ranger, Meera Reed wrapped her arms around her brother, to shelter him from the wind and cold with the warmth of her own body. A crust of frozen snot had formed below Jojen’s nose, and from time to time he shivered violently. He looks so small, Bran thought, as he watched him sway. He looks smaller than me now, and weaker too, and I’m the cripple.
Summer brought up the rear of their little band. The direwolf’s breath frosted the forest air as he padded after them, still limping on the hind leg that had taken the arrow back at Queenscrown. Bran felt the pain of the old wound whenever he slipped inside the big wolf’s skin. Of late Bran wore Summer’s body more often than his own; the wolf felt the bite of the cold, despite the thickness of his fur, but he could see farther and hear better and smell more than the boy in the basket, bundled up like a babe in swaddling clothes.
Other times, when he was tired of being a wolf, Bran slipped into Hodor’s skin instead. The gentle giant would whimper when he felt him, and thrash his shaggy head from side to side, but not as violently as he had the first time, back at Queenscrown. He knows it’s me, the boy liked to tell himself. He’s used to me by now. Even so, he never felt comfortable inside Hodor’s skin. The big stableboy never understood what was happening, and Bran could taste the fear at the back of his mouth. It was better inside Summer. I am him, and he is me. He feels what I feel.
Sometimes Bran could sense the direwolf sniffing after the elk, wondering if he could bring the great beast down. Summer had grown accustomed to horses at Winterfell, but this was an elk and elk were prey. The direwolf could sense the warm blood coursing beneath the elk’s shaggy hide. Just the smell was enough to make the slaver run from between his jaws, and when it did Bran’s mouth would water at the thought of rich, dark meat.
From a nearby oak a raven quorked, and Bran heard the sound of wings as another of the big black birds flapped down to land beside it. By day only half a dozen ravens stayed with them, flitting from tree to tree or riding on the antlers of the elk. The rest of the murder flew ahead or lingered behind. But when the sun sank low they would return, descending from the sky on night-black wings until every branch of every tree was thick with them for yards around. Some would fly to the ranger and mutter at him, and it seemed to Bran that he understood their quorks and squawks. They are his eyes and ears. They scout for him, and whisper to him of dangers ahead and behind.
As now. The elk stopped suddenly, and the ranger vaulted lightly from his back to land in knee-deep snow. Summer growled at him, his fur bristling. The direwolf did not like the way that Coldhands smelled. Dead meat, dry blood, a faint whiff of rot. And cold. Cold over all.
“What is it?” Meera wanted to know.
“Behind us,” Coldhands announced, his voice muffled by the black wool scarf across his nose and mouth.
“Wolves?” Bran asked. They had known for days that they were being followed. Every night they heard the mournful howling of the pack, and every night the wolves seemed a little closer. Hunters, and hungry. They can smell how weak we are. Often Bran woke shivering hours before the dawn, listening to the sound of them calling to one another in the distance as he waited for the sun to rise. If there are wolves, there must be prey, he used to think, until it came to him that they were the prey.
The ranger shook his head. “Men. The wolves still keep their distance. These men are not so shy.”
Meera Reed pushed back her hood. The wet snow that had covered it tumbled to the ground with a soft thump. “How many men? Who are they?”
“Foes. I’ll deal with them.”
“I’ll come with you.”
“You’ll stay. The boy must be protected. There is a lake ahead, hard frozen. When you come on it, turn north and follow the shoreline. You’ll come to a fishing village. Take refuge there until I can catch up with you.”
Bran thought that Meera meant to argue until her brother said, “Do as he says. He knows this land.” Jojen’s eyes were a dark green, the color of moss, but heavy with a weariness that Bran had never seen in them before. The little grandfather. South of the Wall, the boy from the crannogs had seemed to be wise beyond his years, but up here he was as lost and frightened as the rest of them. Even so, Meera always listened to him.
That was still true. Coldhands slipped between the trees, back the way they’d come, with four ravens flapping after him. Meera watched him go, her cheeks red with cold, breath puffing from her nostrils. She pulled her hood back up and gave the elk a nudge, and their trek resumed. Before they had gone twenty yards, though, she turned to glance behind them and said, “Men, he says. What men? Does he mean wildlings? Why won’t he say?”
“He said he’d go and deal with them,” said Bran.
“He said, aye. He said he would take us to this three-eyed crow too. That river we crossed this morning is the same one we crossed four days ago, I swear. We’re going in circles.”
“Rivers turn and twist,” Bran said uncertainly, “and where there’s lakes and hills, you need to go around.”
“There’s been too much going around,” Meera insisted, “and too many secrets. I don’t like it. I don’t like him. And I don’t trust him. Those hands of his are bad enough. 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.”
It’s true. Bran had been afraid to speak of it, but he had noticed. Whenever they took shelter for the night, while he and Hodor and the Reeds huddled together for warmth, the ranger kept apart. Sometimes Coldhands closed his eyes, but Bran did not think he slept. And there was something else…
“The scarf.” Bran glanced about uneasily, but there was not a raven to be seen. All the big black birds had left them when the ranger did. No one was listening. Even so, he kept his voice low. “The scarf over his mouth, it never gets all hard with ice, like Hodor’s beard. Not even when he talks.”
Meera gave him a sharp look. “You’re right. We’ve never seen his breath, have we?”
“No.” A puff of white heralded each of Hodor’s hodors. When Jojen or his sister spoke, their words could be seen too. Even the elk left a warm fog upon the air when he exhaled.
“If he does not breathe…”
Bran found himself remembering the tales Old Nan had told him when he was a babe. Beyond the Wall the monsters live, the giants and the ghouls, the stalking shadows and the dead that walk, she would say, tucking him in beneath his scratchy woolen blanket, but they cannot pass so long as the Wall stands strong and the men of the Night’s Watch are true. So go to sleep, my little Brandon, my baby boy, and dream sweet dreams. There are no monsters here. The ranger wore the black of the Night’s Watch, but what if he was not a man at all? What if he was some monster, taking them to the other monsters to be devoured?
“The ranger saved Sam and the girl from the wights,” Bran said, hesitantly, “and he’s taking me to the three-eyed crow.”
“Why won’t this three-eyed crow come to us? Why couldn’t he meet us at the Wall? Crows have wings. My brother grows weaker every day. How long can we go on?”
Jojen coughed. “Until we get there.”
They came upon the promised lake not long after, and turned north as the ranger had bid them. That was the easy part.
The water was frozen, and the snow had been falling for so long that Bran had lost count of the days, turning the lake into a vast white wilderness. Where the ice was flat and the ground was bumpy, the going was easy, but where the wind had pushed the snow up into ridges, sometimes it was hard to tell where the lake ended and the shore began. Even the trees were not as infallible a guide as they might have hoped, for there were wooded islands in the lake, and wide areas ashore where no trees grew.
The elk went where he would, regardless of the wishes of Meera and Jojen on his back. Mostly he stayed beneath the trees, but where the shore curved away westward he would take the more direct path across the frozen lake, shouldering through snowdrifts taller than Bran as the ice crackled underneath his hooves. Out there the wind was stronger, a cold north wind that howled across the lake, knifed through their layers of wool and leather, and set them all to shivering. When it blew into their faces, it would drive the snow into their eyes and leave them as good as blind.
Hours passed in silence. Ahead, shadows began to steal between the trees, the long fingers of the dusk. Dark came early this far north. Bran had come to dread that. Each day seemed shorter than the last, and where the days were cold, the nights were bitter cruel.
Meera halted them again. “We should have come on the village by now.” Her voice sounded hushed and strange.
“Could we have passed it?” Bran asked. “I hope not. We need to find shelter before nightfall.”
She was not wrong. Jojen’s lips were blue, Meera’s cheeks dark red. Bran’s own face had gone numb. Hodor’s beard was solid ice. Snow caked his legs almost to the knee, and Bran had felt him stagger more than once. No one was as strong as Hodor, no one. If even his great strength was failing…
“Summer can find the village,” Bran said suddenly, his words misting in the air. He did not wait to hear what Meera might say, but closed his eyes and let himself flow from his broken body.
As he slipped inside Summer’s skin, the dead woods came to sudden life. Where before there had been silence, now he heard: wind in the trees, Hodor’s breathing, the elk pawing at the ground in search of fodder. Familiar scents filled his nostrils: wet leaves and dead grass, the rotted carcass of a squirrel decaying in the brush, the sour stink of man-sweat, the musky odor of the elk. Food. Meat. The elk sensed his interest. He turned his head toward the direwolf, wary, and lowered his great antlers.
He is not prey, the boy whispered to the beast who shared his skin. Leave him. Run.
Summer ran. Across the lake he raced, his paws kicking up sprays of snow behind him. The trees stood shoulder to shoulder, like men in a battle line, all cloaked in white. Over roots and rocks the direwolf sped, through a drift of old snow, the crust crackling beneath his weight. His paws grew wet and cold. The next hill was covered with pines, and the sharp scent of their needles filled the air. When he reached the top, he turned in a circle, sniffing at the air, then raised his head and howled.
The smells were there. Mansmells.
Ashes, Bran thought, old and faint, but ashes. It was the smell of burnt wood, soot, and charcoal. A dead fire.
He shook the snow off his muzzle. The wind was gusting, so the smells were hard to follow. The wolf turned this way and that, sniffing. All around were heaps of snow and tall trees garbed in white. The wolf let his tongue loll out between his teeth, tasting the frigid air, his breath misting as snowflakes melted on his tongue. When he trotted toward the scent, Hodor lumbered after him at once. The elk took longer to decide, so Bran returned reluctantly to his own body and said, “That way. Follow Summer. I smelled it.”
As the first sliver of a crescent moon came peeking through the clouds, they finally stumbled into the village by the lake. They had almost walked straight through it. From the ice, the village looked no different than a dozen other spots along the lakeshore. Buried under drifts of snow, the round stone houses could just as easily have been boulders or hillocks or fallen logs, like the deadfall that Jojen had mistaken for a building the day before, until they dug down into it and found only broken branches and rotting logs.
The village was empty, abandoned by the wildlings who had once lived there, like all the other villages they had passed. Some had been burned, as if the inhabitants had wanted to make certain they could not come creeping back, but this one had been spared the torch. Beneath the snow they found a dozen huts and a longhall, with its sod roof and thick walls of rough-hewn logs.
“At least we will be out of the wind,” Bran said.
“Hodor,” said Hodor.
Meera slid down from the elk’s back. She and her brother helped lift Bran out of the wicker basket. “Might be the wildlings left some food behind,” she said.
That proved a forlorn hope. Inside the longhall they found the ashes of a fire, floors of hard-packed dirt, a chill that went bone deep. But at least they had a roof above their heads and log walls to keep the wind off. A stream ran nearby, covered with a film of ice. The elk had to crack it with his hoof to drink. Once Bran and Jojen and Hodor were safely settled, Meera fetched back some chunks of broken ice for them to suck on. The melting water was so cold it made Bran shudder.
Summer did not follow them into the longhall. Bran could feel the big wolf’s hunger, a shadow of his own. “Go hunt,” he told him, “but you leave the elk alone.” Part of him was wishing he could go hunting too. Perhaps he would, later.
Supper was a fistful of acorns, crushed and pounded into paste, so bitter that Bran gagged as he tried to keep it down. Jojen Reed did not even make the attempt. Younger and frailer than his sister, he was growing weaker by the day.
“Jojen, you have to eat,” Meera told him.
“Later. I just want to rest.” Jojen smiled a wan smile. “This is not the day I die, sister. I promise you.”
“You almost fell off the elk.”
“Almost. I am cold and hungry, that’s all.”
“Crushed acorns? My belly hurts, but that will only make it worse. Leave me be, sister. I’m dreaming of roast chicken.”
“Dreams will not sustain you. Not even greendreams.”
“Dreams are what we have.”
All we have. The last of the food that they had brought from the south was ten days gone. Since then hunger walked beside them day and night. Even Summer could find no game in these woods. They lived on crushed acorns and raw fish. The woods were full of frozen streams and cold black lakes, and Meera was as good a fisher with her three-pronged frog spear as most men were with hook and line. Some days her lips were blue with cold by the time she waded back to them with her catch wriggling on her tines. It had been three days since Meera caught a fish, however. Bran’s belly felt so hollow it might have been three years.
After they choked down their meagre supper, Meera sat with her back against a wall, sharpening her dagger on a whetstone. Hodor squatted down beside the door, rocking back and forth on his haunches and muttering, “Hodor, hodor, hodor.”
Bran closed his eyes. It was too cold to talk, and they dare not light a fire. Coldhands had warned them against that. These woods are not as empty as you think, he had said. You cannot know what the light might summon from the darkness. The memory made him shiver, despite the warmth of Hodor beside him.
Sleep would not come, could not come. Instead there was wind, the biting cold, moonlight on snow, and fire. He was back inside Summer, long leagues away, and the night was rank with the smell of blood. The scent was strong. A kill, not far. The flesh would still be warm. Slaver ran between his teeth as the hunger woke inside him. Not elk. Not deer. Not this.
The direwolf moved toward the meat, a gaunt grey shadow sliding from tree to tree, through pools of moonlight and over mounds of snow. The wind gusted around him, shifting. He lost the scent, found it, then lost it again. As he searched for it once more, a distant sound made his ears prick up.
Wolf, he knew at once. Summer stalked toward the sound, wary now. Soon enough the scent of blood was back, but now there were other smells: piss and dead skins, bird shit, feathers, and wolf, wolf, wolf. A pack. He would need to fight for his meat.
They smelled him too. As he moved out from amongst the darkness of the trees into the bloody glade, they were watching him. The female was chewing on a leather boot that still had half a leg in it, but she let it fall at his approach. The leader of the pack, an old male with a grizzled white muzzle and a blind eye, moved out to meet him, snarling, his teeth bared. Behind him, a younger male showed his fangs as well.
The direwolf’s pale yellow eyes drank in the sights around them. A nest of entrails coiled through a bush, entangled with the branches. Steam rising from an open belly, rich with the smells of blood and meat. A head staring sightlessly up at a horned moon, cheeks ripped and torn down to bloody bone, pits for eyes, neck ending in a ragged stump. A pool of frozen blood, glistening red and black.
Men. The stink of them filled the world. Alive, they had been as many as the fingers on a man’s paw, but now they were none. Dead. Done. Meat. Cloaked and hooded, once, but the wolves had torn their clothing into pieces in their frenzy to get at the flesh. Those who still had faces wore thick beards crusted with ice and frozen snot. The falling snow had begun to bury what remained of them, so pale against the black of ragged cloaks and breeches. Black.
Long leagues away, the boy stirred uneasily.
Black. Night’s Watch. They were Night’s Watch.
The direwolf did not care. They were meat. He was hungry.
The eyes of the three wolves glowed yellow. The direwolf swung his head from side to side, nostrils flaring, then bared his fangs in a snarl. The younger male backed away. The direwolf could smell the fear in him. Tail, he knew. But the one-eyed wolf answered with a growl and moved to block his advance. Head. And he does not fear me though I am twice his size.
Their eyes met.
Then the two rushed together, wolf and direwolf, and there was no more time for thought. The world shrank down to tooth and claw, snow flying as they rolled and spun and tore at one another, the other wolves snarling and snapping around them. His jaws closed on matted fur slick with hoarfrost, on a limb thin as a dry stick, but the one-eyed wolf clawed at his belly and tore himself free, rolled, lunged for him. Yellow fangs snapped closed on his throat, but he shook off his old grey cousin as he would a rat, then charged after him, knocked him down. Rolling, ripping, kicking, they fought until the both of them were ragged and fresh blood dappled the snows around them. But finally the old one-eyed wolf lay down and showed his belly. The direwolf snapped at him twice more, sniffed at his butt, then lifted a leg over him.
A few snaps and a warning growl, and the female and the tail submitted too. The pack was his.
The prey as well. He went from man to man, sniffing, before settling on the biggest, a faceless thing who clutched black iron in one hand. His other hand was missing, severed at the wrist, the stump bound up in leather. Blood flowed thick and sluggish from the slash across his throat. The wolf lapped at it with his tongue, licked the ragged eyeless ruin of his nose and cheeks, then buried his muzzle in his neck and tore it open, gulping down a gobbet of sweet meat. No flesh had ever tasted half as good.
When he was done with that one, he moved to the next, and devoured the choicest bits of that man too. Ravens watched him from the trees, squatting dark-eyed and silent on the branches as snow drifted down around them. The other wolves made do with his leavings; the old male fed first, then the female, then the tail. They were his now. They were pack.
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?
Falling snow and feasting wolves began to dim. Warmth beat against his face, comforting as a mother’s kisses. Fire, he thought, smoke. His nose twitched to the smell of roasting meat. And then the forest fell away, and he was back in the longhall again, back in his broken body, staring at a fire. Meera Reed was turning a chunk of raw red flesh above the flames, letting it char and spit. “Just in time,” she said. Bran rubbed his eyes with the heel of his hand and wriggled backwards against the wall to sit. “You almost slept through supper. The ranger found a sow.”
Behind her, Hodor was tearing eagerly at a chunk of hot charred flesh as blood and grease ran down into his beard. Wisps of smoke rose from between his fingers. “Hodor,” he muttered between bites, “hodor, hodor.” His sword lay on the earthen floor beside him. Jojen Reed nipped at his own joint with small bites, chewing each chunk of meat a dozen times before swallowing.
The ranger killed a pig. Coldhands stood beside the door, a raven on his arm, both staring at the fire. Reflections from the flames glittered off four black eyes. He does not eat, Bran remembered, and he fears the flames.
“You said no fire,” he reminded the ranger. “The walls around us hide the light, and dawn is close. We will be on our way soon.”
“What happened to the men? The foes behind us?”
“They will not trouble you.”
“Who were they? Wildlings?”
Meera turned the meat to cook the other side. Hodor was chewing and swallowing, muttering happily under his breath. Only Jojen seemed aware of what was happening as Coldhands turned his head to stare at Bran. “They were foes.”
Men of the Night’s Watch. “You killed them. You and the ravens. Their faces were all torn, and their eyes were gone.” Coldhands did not deny it. “They were your brothers. I saw. The wolves had ripped their clothes up, but I could still tell. Their cloaks were black. Like your hands.” Coldhands said nothing. “Who are you? Why are your hands black?”
The ranger studied his hands as if he had never noticed them before. “Once the heart has ceased to beat, a man’s blood runs down into his extremities, where it thickens and congeals.” His voice rattled in his throat, as thin and gaunt as he was. “His hands and feet swell up and turn as black as pudding. The rest of him becomes as white as milk.”
Meera Reed rose, her frog spear in her hand, a chunk of smoking meat still impaled upon its tines. “Show us your face.”
The ranger made no move to obey.
“He’s dead.” Bran could taste the bile in his throat. “Meera, he’s some dead thing. The monsters cannot pass so long as the Wall stands and the men of the Night’s Watch stay true, that’s what Old Nan used to say. He came to meet us at the Wall, but he could not pass. He sent Sam instead, with that wildling girl.”
Meera’s gloved hand tightened around the shaft of her frog spear. “Who sent you? Who is this three-eyed crow?”
“A friend. Dreamer, wizard, call him what you will. The last greenseer.” The longhall’s wooden door banged open. Outside, the night wind howled, bleak and black. The trees were full of ravens, screaming. Coldhands did not move.
“A monster,” Bran said.
The ranger looked at Bran as if the rest of them did not exist. “Your monster, Brandon Stark.”
“Yours,” the raven echoed, from his shoulder. Outside the door, the ravens in the trees took up the cry, until the night wood echoed to the murderer’s song of “Yours, yours, yours.”
“Jojen, did you dream this?” Meera asked her brother. “Who is he? What is he? What do we do now?”
“We go with the ranger,” said Jojen. “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.”