Are we there yet? Bran thinks, but dares not say. The group passes under more and more trees: oaks, pine, evergreens. Bran continues to sit in his basket atop Hodor, nearly hitting his head on the overhanging branches. How much further? Where is the three-eyed crow?
Hodor walks with one eye frozen shut. He holds the rusty old sword from Winterfell, slashing at tree branches that get in his way. He has snow up to his knees, and his beard is covered in ice.
Bran notices that it is different in the Haunted Forest. The group is not telling stories like they were south of the Wall. It is stillness here.
The elk is ahead of Bran, its antlers covered in ice. The ranger, pale, black and hands as hard as iron, sits atop the elk. The ranger wears ringmail, a black cloak, with a black woolen scarf hiding his face. Behind him, Meera holds Jojen, who is smaller and weaker, to keep him warm. Summer is at the back of the group, limping from the arrow wound he received at Queenscrown still. The wolf feels the bite of cold through his fur.
Bran has been slipping into Summer a lot, and Hodor too. Hodor is getting used to it because Hodor knows it is Bran. However, Bran is never comfortable in Hodor like he is in Summer. Bran feels Summer wondering if he could bring down the elk, he smells the warm blood of it, and salivates.
Ravens quork around them. By day, six stay with them, while the rest of the murder fly ahead and behind. They all come back at night. The ravens are the ranger's eyes and ears. The elk stops suddenly, and the ranger jumps off. "Behind us" he says.
"Wolves?" Bran knows that a pack of wolves are following them. They have been smelling how weak and hungry they are. Bran could hear them every night, getting closer; they were hunted.
"No," says the ranger. Men are following them. "I'll deal with them."
Meera wants to come with him, but no she must stay with Bran. "The boy must be protected," says the ranger, 'Coldhands.' He tells them to turn north at the lake, and go to a fishing village alongside it. Once there, they will wait for him.
Bran notices that Jojen is as lost and dependent as they are, he is not the little grandfather he was when they were south of the Wall.
The ranger leaves on foot. Meera asks, "Men? What men? Wildlings?" Coldhands does not respond.
The rest of the group continues on. They cross a river. Meera complains that it is the same river they've crossed four times already. Bran explains that rivers can snake around, so that it is possible. She continues to complain about the ranger: "He has too many secrets. Who is he? Anyone or anything can put on a black cloak. He doesn't eat. He doesn't sleep. He does not need heat." Bran remembers the group huddling together to get warm at night, but not the ranger.
Bran looks to see if the ravens are around, they are not, so he gains some courage to speak his mind. He makes the observation that the ranger's scarf does not get covered in ice, that he has no breath. Bran looks at the others and can see steam escaping from their mouths.
He then remembers Old Nan telling him stories of monsters North of the Wall, as she tucked him into bed at Winterfell. Bran notes that the ranger wears black like a man of the Night's Watch, but what if he was just a monster taking them to other monsters?
Meera continues: "Why must we go to the three-eyed crow? Why can't the three-eyed crow come to us? Can't he fly?" They walk over and along the frozen shore of a lake. The elk went where he would, keeping close to the trees. The elk shoulders through snowdrifts as tall as Bran. The wind cuts through their clothes, and blows snow into their eyes.
The sun begins to set. Dark comes early. Each day is shorter than the last, something Bran was getting used to. Meera worries: "We should have gotten to the village by now. We need to get there by dark." Hodor's strength is failing. Bran worries that someone as strong as Hodor is tiring. Bran suggests that Summer can find the village. He quickly slips inside his direwolf, and his senses immediately become more acute. He listens to the sounds of the forest, and smells the elk. Bran tells Summer that the elk is not prey, and to run. Summer runs ahead.
He goes past trees, up and down hills, sniffing and then howls. Eventually, he smells men smells. Ashes. A dead fire. "That way," says Bran. "Follow Summer."
The moon appears. Soon after, they find the fishing village. They almost walk right through it, because it is buried under snow. The other day, Jojen had mistaken a dead fall under the snow for a house. They had dug down, and found nothing.
A dozen huts are beneath the snow, and one long hall. The fishing village is similar to previous empty wildling villages. Bran thinks that maybe the wildlings left some food. It is wishful thinking, since all the villages are empty. Bran is optimistic that at least they have a roof. They all enter the long hall, and take shelter.
The elk breaks through a frozen stream to drink. Summer doesn't come into the hall, and goes off hunting. "Leave the elk alone," Bran warns.
They are all hungry and exhausted from travel. Jojen is getting weaker and weaker. Meera says "Jojen, you have to eat."
"Later, I am tired. Today is not the day I die. Crushed acorns? That will make me worse. Leave me." All the food they had brought from the south had been eaten ten days ago. Raw fish and acorns were all that was left to eat. It had been 3 days since Meera had caught a fish. She was usually numb with cold after hunting.
After their dinner of crushed acorns, Meera sharpens her dagger, while Hodor sits and mutters 'Hodor' by the door. "We dare not light a fire," Coldhands had warned. "The woods are not empty. We don't know what the fire will invite from the dark."
Out in the woods, Summer smells a kill. Bran slips inside. There is the smell of blood, but not elk, not deer. Something else. Summer goes searching for the scent. He loses it, finds it, and tracks it down eventually.
There is the sound of wolves, and the smell of piss and dead skins. He will need to fight for the meat. There are three wolves eating. There is a female chewing on a leg of boot with half a leg still in it. An old one-eyed male wolf and a young male are eating the entrails coming from an open belly. There are less than five dead men. Some have no heads. The wolves had torn them apart. Their eyes are also gone: pecked out.
Those who still had faces had thick beards with frozen ice in them. They all wore black. The black of the Night's Watch, Bran realizes. One of the men has an old stump instead of a hand.
The young male backs away from Summer; he is the tail. The old wolf challenges; he's the head. Their eyes meet. Warg. They fight. Slashing, rolling, fresh blood on both sides. The other 2 wolves circle. It is a long fight. The old wolf will not give up easily. Eventually, the old one-eyed wolf submits. Summer lifts his leg on him. The others submit. The pack was his. No, we have a pack elsewhere. Bran remembers his other pack: the Stark wolves.
Summer begins to eat the Night's Watch men. A guilty thought passes through his head, but he still eats their throats because he is hungry. Suddenly, he feels warmth on his skin... brightness. Bran wakes up. Meera has started a fire.
The ranger has returned, and he had found a sow. Meera is roasting it over a fire. Hodor is eating it happily, with juice running through his fingers. Jojen eats too, but with small nibbles. The ranger stands in the doorway, with a raven on his shoulder, watching. He fears the flames, Bran thinks.
"I thought we said no fire?" asks Bran. "The walls block it, and dawn is near," replies Coldhands.
"Who did you kill? Wildlings?" asks Bran. "Foes," says the ranger. "They were of the Night's Watch!" shouts Bran. "They were foes," responds Coldhands.
"They were your brothers. Your ravens pecked out their eyes." Bran lets loose his suspicions. "Why are your hands black?"
The ranger replies: "Once the heart stops, the blood congeals."
"Show us your face," Meera demands.
Bran: "He's dead, Meera. Monsters cannot pass the Wall! He had the fat boy Sam get us! He could not pass through the Wall!"
Meera demands: "Who sent you? Who is this three-eyed crow?"
"A wizard, the last green seer, whatever you want to call it."
The trees are full of ravens screaming outside. "He's a monster," says Bran.
Meera asks her brother, "Jojen, did you dream this? What do we do?"
Jojen replies, "Go with him. We've come too far to go back now. We cannot return to the Wall. We either go with a monster or we die."
That's it. My thoughts: Obviously the three wolves are the same that belonged to Varamyr. Varamyr's consciousness is still in the old wolf. The word warg that passes between that wolf and Summer shows this. I wonder if these wolves will stay a pack under Summer. Eventually, I could see Bran taking them on, so maybe there will be a battle of consciousness between Bran and Varamyr?
I feel that the NW Coldhands killed were some of the Betrayers from Craster's. One is described as having a permanent stump (not a stump after the wolves got at them), so this must be Ollo Lophand. Also, why were these Night's Watch north of the Wall without horses? This would make the killing of them less heinous than this chapter makes out. Coldhands did let Sam live, remember. However, Sam was weak and alone. If a group of rangers came across Bran's group and demanded that they come with them, I could see Coldhands taking them out.
Here's to the first Bran chapter in about 9 years! I'm glad we now know a little more after he went through the Black Gate. GRRM also didn't realize he hadn't read this chapter before.
Edit: I've probably left out some details. I was scribbling like mad, and still enjoying the story. At the end, the ravens start shouting 'yours,' copying someone, but I don't have it written down who said 'yours' before that.
Edited by Angalin, 11 August 2009 - 12:15 AM.