It seemed like such a mundane reason on the surface, Mance thought to himself. However, he knew that there was more to it than just the cloak. Though he had contemplated his choice what seemed like hundreds of times, he once again recalled the events that ultimately lead to his decision to abandon his brothers, and break his sworn oaths to the Night’s Watch.
After the shadowcat attacked he and his fellow brother’s weeks before and nearly tore his back to pieces during the fight. A wildling woman he had never met or seen in his entire life healed his wounds and mended his cloak where the cat’s razor-sharp claws had sunk deep into his back. While Mance recuperated from the injury, she mended his torn cloak, dull and black like all of the Night’s Watch brothers, with swatches of red cloth. He thought nothing special of it at the time, but supposed the red strips of material would be a stark reminder of how close he had come to death when the fearsome creature attempted to slay him.
The exact conclusion he had reached was not one that was easily explained. It was not until he had returned to the Wall that the Night’s Watch commanders required him to replace his altered cloak with one of the Night’s Watch uniform black. He remembered that night they shambled into the Shadow Tower after the long ranging. He remembered when Qhorin Halfhand told him to toss the newly patched up cloak into fire, joking about the shoddy repairs that the wildling woman had made to it. As he watched the black cloak with its streaks of red linen burn to ashes in the fire, he thought about the wildling woman, and his mother. He imagined that his mother must have been similar to her. Generous, thoughtful, but most of all … free. This was not a way to live he thought to himself that night. Men were not meant to live their lives under relentless scrutiny and fear. Men were meant to be free. His people were the free folk, and he had been taken from them. It was this transgression that caused him to abandon the Night’s Watch, and live with the wildlings in the way he had always wanted to, a decision he was still coming to terms with. After all, he had been a loyal member of the Night’s Watch for most of his life. Never once breaking his vows.
As Mance forced all of his reservations about leaving the Watch out of his conscious, he focused his attention to the map that he had taken from the Shadow Tower, and where to go next. He had a vast lead on any would-be pursuers coming from the Tower, and he doubted that any of his brothers would think he had actually fled, intending never to come back. It would likely be days before any real threat would come to him, unless he encountered any rangers along his travels that would turn him in for leaving his post. He assumed that when his brothers woke, it would be several hours before they even took notice of his absence.
He had fled the castle just after dusk, and had even managed to steal an old mare from one of the supply wagons that had rolled into the keep earlier that day to replenish their dwindling provisions. The Watch would likely offer the poor trader a replacement so that he would return the next time goods were needed, and so, he thought little of the theft. As his eyes strained to read in the gloomy frozen night, he studied the sturdy parchment map as it crumpled in the icy wind. He could barely make out the small wildling town of Whitetree on the map, represented by an old stamp in the shape of a white Weirwood just north of Castle Black. He managed to quickly trace a group of creeks and other landmarks to his objective despite the blinding darkness.
He folded up the parchment and stuffed it into his leather tunic, black as the Haunted Forest that surrounded him. It is so bloody dark out here, Mance thought to himself as he drove his heels into the old mare’s sides. The horse responded sluggishly, but began to gradually hasten its pace into a trot as he kicked her sides repeatedly. It was nearly a full moon, but the foliage of the Haunted Forest was so thick the dim moonlight could only pierce the dense forest canopy in arbitrary pockets, coming through the tops of the trees like rays of sunlight through the clouds. With such a miniscule amount of light to see where he was going, he knew it would only take one wrong step for the old mare to trip on a rock or a root and break its leg, forcing him to continue at a much more lethargic pace on foot.
As he rode through the night towards Whitetree his thoughts began to wander once more. He thought of his father, and wondered what he might have been like. Had his father been a skilled hunter? A great warrior? Or did he share his immense love for music and been a bard like the infamous Bael? As the thought crossed his mind, he reached down to unclasp the satchel, which carried his most prized possession, his lute. Where others placed all of their value in steel or armor, Mance cherished his lute over all other possessions, though there were few things the Watch would ever let him keep. As he slid the instrument gently out of the bag and into his hands, his mind almost instantaneously positioned his hands in the proper place along the lute to begin playing a song, despite the blackness that encircled him. He softly began to pick at the strings with delicate fingers to play one of his most beloved tunes.
The Dornishman’s wife was as fair as the sun,
and her kisses were warmer than spring.
But the Dornishman’s blade was made of black steel,
and its kiss was a terrible thing.
The Dornishman’s wife would sing as she bathed,
in a voice that was sweet as a peach,
But the Dornishman’s blade had a song of its own,
and a bite sharp and cold as a leech.
As he lay on the ground with the darkness around,
and the taste of his blood on his tongue,
His brothers knelt by him and prayed him a prayer,
and he smiled and he laughed and he sung,
“Brothers, oh brothers, my days here are done,
the Dornishman’s taken my life,
Just before he reached the last line, his worst fears had come true. The old mare caught a root and took a tumble, throwing him from the saddle and into the cold snow on his back. Before moving, he stretched his arms out and inspected the lute for damage. What a fool I am… he said to himself as he stood up and brushed off the snow from his furs. The mare was kicking and floundering about where he had tripped, but seemed to be more startled than injured. He placed the instrument on the ground beside him and calmly quieted the horse. He managed to get her back up on four hooves and ensured that she was uninjured.
“You old damned fool,” he mumbled to the horse as he stroked her along the neck. He reached down and grasped the lute by the neck, bringing it up to his chest and finished the song.
But what does it matter, for all men must die,
and I’ve tasted the Dornishman’s wife!”
The arrow that hit him made no noise, but simply came streaking out of the darkness and lodged itself in the body of his lute, nearly splitting it in two and knocking him on his back. As he lay on the ground, another stream of arrows hit his horse along the side. The old mare toppled over on top on him squeezing the air from his lungs. He struggled to reach his sword, which hung from his side, but he was hopelessly pinned beneath the beast.
“Looks like this one’s still alive,” he heard a voice say in a chilly tone. The wildling put one foot on the horse’s side and drove a spear through the old mare’s skull.
Knowing that he was doomed, as Mance lay pinned beneath the dead horse, he said the only thing he thought would save him.
“Did you enjoy the song?” he sanguinely asked as he gasped for air beneath the weight on his chest. The man who stood on the horse let out a howl of laughter as his fellow warband joined in.
“Take him. Rattleshirt will want to question this one,” bellowed the fat wildling that stood a few feet behind Mance with a bow.
The wildling nearest to him stepped off the corpse and twisted the spear from the horse’s skull. As it withdrew, the mare’s head dropped back down into the snow with an unsettling plop. He calmly walked next to Mance and positioned the dull end of the spear next to his ear.
“Nighty night crow,” he said as he swung the spear into the side of Mance’s head.