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."
Cold-hands 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. Hecame 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 green-seer." The longhall's wooden door banged open. Outside, the night wind howled, bleak and black. The trees were full of ravens, screaming. Cold-hands 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."
They departed Pentos by the Sunrise Gate, though Tyrion Lannister never glimpsed the sunrise. "It will be as if you had never come to Pentos, my little friend," promised Magister Illyrio, as he drew shut the litter's purple velvet drapes. "No man must see you leave the city, as no man saw you enter."
"No man except the sailors who stuffed me in that barrel, the cabin boy who cleaned up after me, the girl you sent to warm my bed, and that treacherous freckled washerwoman. Oh, and your guards. Unless you removed their wits along with their balls, they know you're not alone in here." The litter was suspended between eight mammoth draft horses on heavy leather straps. Four eunuchs paced beside the horses, two to either side, and more were trudging along behind to guard the baggage train.
"Unsullied tell no tales," Illyrio assured him. "And the galley that delivered you is on her way to Asshai even now. It will be two years before she returns, if the seas are kind. As for my household, they love me well. None would betray me."
Cherish that thought, my fat friend. One day we will carve those words upon your crypt. "We should be aboard that galley," the dwarf said.