"Who are you?" Meera Reed was asking.
Bran knew. "She's a child. A child of the forest." He shivered, as much from wonderment as cold. They had fallen into one of Old Nan's tales.
"The First Men named us children," the little woman said. "The giants called us woh dak nag gran, the squirrel people, because we were small and quick and fond of trees, but we are no squirrels, no children. Our name in the True Tongue means those who sing the song of earth. Before your Old Tongue was ever spoken, we had sung our songs ten thousand years."
Meera said, "You speak the Common Tongue now."
"For him. The Bran boy. I was born in the time of the dragon, and for two hundred years I walked the world of men, to watch and listen and learn. I might be walking still, but my legs were sore and my heart was weary, so I turned my feet for home."
"Two hundred years?" said Meera.
The child smiled. "Men, they are the children."
"Do you have a name?" asked Bran. "When I am needing one."
She waved her torch toward the black crack in the back wall of the cave.
"Our way is down. You must come with me now."
Bran shivered again. "The ranger ..."
"He cannot come."
"They'll kill him."
"No. They killed him long ago. Come now. It is warmer down deep, and no one will hurt you there. He is waiting for you."
"The three-eyed crow?" asked Meera. "The greenseer." And with that she was off, and they had no choice but to follow. Meera helped Bran back up onto Hodor's back, though his basket was half-crushed and wet from melting snow. Then she slipped an arm around her brother and shouldered him back onto his feet once more. His eyes opened. "What?" he said. "Meera? Where are we?" When he saw the fire, he smiled. "I had the strangest dream."
The way was cramped and twisty, and so low that Hodor soon was crouching. Bran hunched down as best he could, but even so, the top of his head was soon scraping and bumping against the ceiling. Loose dirt crumbled at each touch and dribbled down into his eyes and hair, and once he smacked his brow on a thick white root growing from the tunnel wall, with tendrils hanging from it and spiderwebs between its fingers. The child went in front with the torch in hand, her cloak of leaves whispering behind her, but the passage turned so much that Bran soon lost sight of her. Then the only light was what was reflected off the passage walls. After they had gone down a little, the cave pided, but the left branch was dark as pitch, so even Hodor knew to follow the moving torch to the right. The way the shadows shifted made it seem as if the walls were moving too. Bran saw great white snakes slithering in and out of the earth around him, and his heart thumped in fear. He wondered if they had blundered into a nest of milk snakes or giant grave worms, soft and pale and squishy. Grave worms have teeth.
Hodor saw them too. "Hodor," he whimpered, reluctant to go on. But when the girl child stopped to let them catch her, the torchlight steadied, and Bran realized that the snakes were only white roots like the one he'd hit his head on. "It's weirwood roots," he said. "Remember the heart tree in the godswood, Hodor? The white tree with the red leaves? A tree can't hurt you."
"Hodor." Hodor plunged ahead, hurrying after the child and her torch, deeper into the earth. They passed another branching, and another, then came into an echoing cavern as large as the great hall of Winterfell, with stone teeth hanging from its ceiling and more poking up through its floor. The child in the leafy cloak wove a path through them. From time to time she stopped and waved her torch at them impatiently. This way, it seemed to say, this way, this way, faster.
There were more side passages after that, more chambers, and Bran heard dripping water somewhere to his right. When he looked off that way, he saw eyes looking back at them, slitted eyes that glowed bright, reflecting back the torchlight. More children, he told himself, the girl is not the only one, but Old Nan's tale of Gendel's children came back to him as well. The roots were everywhere, twisting through earth and stone, closing off some passages and holding up the roofs of others. All the color is gone, Bran realized suddenly. The world was black soil and white wood. The heart tree at Winterfell had roots as thick around as a giant's legs, but these were even thicker. And Bran had never seen so many of them. There must be a whole grove of weirwoods growing up above us.
The light dwindled again. Small as she was, the child-who-was-not-a-child moved quickly when she wanted. As Hodor thumped after her, something crunched beneath his feet. His halt was so sudden that Meera and Jojen almost slammed into his back.
"Bones," said Bran. "It's bones." The floor of the passage was littered with the bones of birds and beasts. But there were other bones as well, big ones that must have come from giants and small ones that could have been from children. On either side of them, in niches carved from the stone, skulls looked down on them. Bran saw a bear skull and a wolf skull, half a dozen human skulls and near as many giants. All the rest were small, queerly formed. Children of the forest. The roots had grown in and around and through them, every one. A few had ravens perched atop them, watching them pass with bright black eyes.
The last part of their dark journey was the steepest. Hodor made the final descent on his arse, bumping and sliding downward in a clatter of broken bones, loose dirt, and pebbles. The girl child was waiting for them, standing on one end of a natural bridge above a yawning chasm. Down below in the darkness, Bran heard the sound of rushing water. An underground river.
"Do we have to cross?" Bran asked, as the Reeds came sliding down behind him. The prospect frightened him. If Hodor slipped on that narrow bridge, they would fall and fall.
"No, boy," the child said. "Behind you." She lifted her torch higher, and the light seemed to shift and change. One moment the flames burned orange and yellow, filling the cavern with a ruddy glow; then all the colors faded, leaving only black and white. Behind them Meera gasped. Hodor turned.
Before them a pale lord in ebon finery sat dreaming in a tangled nest of roots, a woven weirwood throne that embraced his withered limbs as a mother does a child.
His body was so skeletal and his clothes so rotted that at first Bran took him for another corpse, a dead man propped up so long that the roots had grown over him, under him, and through him. What skin the corpse lord showed was white, save for a bloody blotch that crept up his neck onto his cheek. His white hair was fine and thin as root hair and long enough to brush against the earthen floor. Roots coiled around his legs like wooden serpents. One burrowed through his breeches into the desiccated flesh of his thigh, to emerge again from his shoulder. A spray of dark red leaves sprouted from his skull, and grey mushrooms spotted his brow. A little skin remained, stretched across his face, tight and hard as white leather, but even that was fraying, and here and there the brown and yellow bone beneath was poking through.
"Are you the three-eyed crow?" Bran heard himself say. A three-eyed crow should have three eyes. He has only one, and that one red. Bran could feel the eye staring at him, shining like a pool of blood in the torchlight. Where his other eye should have been, a thin white root grew from an empty socket, down his cheek, and into his neck.
"A ... crow?" The pale lord's voice was dry. His lips moved slowly, as if they had forgotten how to form words. "Once, aye. Black of garb and black of blood." The clothes he wore were rotten and faded, spotted with moss and eaten through with worms, but once they had been black. "I have been many things, Bran. Now I am as you see me, and now you will understand why I could not come to you ... except in dreams. I have watched you for a long time, watched you with a thousand eyes and one. I saw your birth, and that of your lord father before you. I saw your first step, heard your first word, was part of your first dream. I was watching when you fell. And now you are come to me at last, Brandon Stark, though the hour is late."
"I'm here," Bran said, "only I'm broken. Will you ... will you fix me ... my legs, I mean?"
"No," said the pale lord. "That is beyond my powers."
Bran's eyes filled with tears. We came such a long way. The chamber echoed to the sound of the black river.
"You will never walk again, Bran," the pale lips promised, "but you will fly."
For a long while he did not stir, but lay unmoving upon the heap of old sacks that served him for a bed, listening to the wind in the lines, to the lapping of the river at the hull.
A full moon floated above the mast. It is following me downriver, watching me like some great eye. Despite the warmth of the musty skins that covered him, a shiver went through the little man. I need a cup of wine. A dozen cups of wine. But the moon would blink before that whoreson Griff let him quench his thirst. Instead he drank water, and was condemned to sleepless nights and days of sweats and shakes.
The dwarf sat up, cradling his head in his hands. Did I dream? All memory of it had fled. The nights had never been kind to Tyrion Lannister. He slept badly even on soft feather beds. On the Shy Maid, he made his bed atop the roof of the cabin, with a coil of hempen rope for a pillow. He liked it better up here than in the boat's cramped hold. The air was fresher, and the river sounds were sweeter than Duck's snoring. There was a price to be paid for such joys, though; the deck was hard, and he woke stiff and sore, his legs cramped and aching.
They were throbbing now, his calves gone hard as wood. He kneaded them with his fingers, trying to rub the ache away, but when he stood the pain was still enough to make him grimace. I need to bathe. His boy's clothes stank, and so did he. The others bathed in the river, but thus far he had not joined them. Some of the turtles he'd seen in the shallows looked big enough to bite him in half. Bonesnappers, Duck called them. Besides, he did not want Lemore to see him naked.
A wooden ladder led down from the cabin roof. Tyrion pulled on his boots and descended to the afterdeck, where Griff sat wrapped in a wolf-skin cloak beside an iron brazier. The sellsword kept the night watch by himself, rising as the rest of his band sought their beds and retiring when the sun came up.
Tyrion squatted across from him and warmed his hands over the coals. Across the water nightingales were singing. "Day soon," he said to Griff.
"Not soon enough. We need to be under way." If it had been up to Griff, the Shy Maid would continue downstream by night as well as day, but Yandry and Ysilla refused to risk their poleboat in the dark. The Upper Rhoyne was full of snags and sawyers, any one of which could rip out the Shy Maid's hull. Griff did not want to hear it. What he wanted was Volantis. The sellsword's eyes were always moving, searching the night for ... what? Pirates? Stone men? Slave-catchers? The river had perils, the dwarf knew, but Griff himself struck Tyrion as more dangerous than any of them. He reminded Tyrion of Bronn, though Bronn had a sellsword's black humor and Griff had no humor at all.
"I would kill for a cup of wine," muttered Tyrion.
Griff made no reply. You will die before you drink, his pale eyes seemed to say. Tyrion had drunk himself blind his first night on the Shy Maid. The next day he awoke with dragons fighting in his skull. Griff took one look at him retching over the side of the poleboat, and said, "You are done with drink."