To be honest, Mance thought his brief time as a free man would end when the wildlings caught him and brought him to Rattleshirt. Instead he cut his bonds and allowed him to prove his worth. Perhaps these wildlings weren’t such a bad lot after all, despite what many of his brothers would say about them. But he did not want to think about that. They were not his brothers anymore, and he would never meet them as a friend again. He was a deserter. And deserters are guaranteed one thing. Execution.
It was early morning, and Mance was making good progress with the new horse that Rattleshirt had given to him for saving his life and killing the beast. He stayed in the encampment for another day after the attack, and had even made a few friends with some of the men in Rattleshirt’s warband whilst exchanging stories over the sour mead that the wildlings loved to slop down in cups that were hewn from pale-blue bones. Mance had hoped that they were animal, but with the wildlings, the possibility that they were human was almost as likely.
Just before dawn, Mance had gathered his gear, nodded a few goodbyes and thanked Rattleshirt again for his hospitality, and his life. Two days he had given to Mance, and he thought it better not to outstay his welcome. The Night’s Watch were likely to have taken note of his absence by now, and there were no doubt pursuers from The Shadow Tower making their way up the Milkwater towards him.
Mance removed the map stuffed in his pocket and studied it for a moment. He traced his finger along the dark brown ink that stained the parchment, marking the Milkwater, and followed it until he reached the symbol marking Craster’s Keep. Rattleshirt had given Mance what supplies he could spare, but he was barely more than an acquaintance to the great Lord of Bones, though he owed him his life. “Them crows will probably catch you before nightfall, and if they do, I don’t want to waste good food on a deserter when it could have fed my own,” Rattleshirt had said to him before giving him the small sack fashioned from the hide of one of the massive elks that roamed north of the Wall, and recently from the stench it gave off. Inside the pack, Mance found some jerky, hard and stringy, likely taken from the same elk as the bag, a small salmon fished out of the Milkwater that was dried and salted, a piece of stale bread hard as iron, and a small jug of the bitter cider the wildling who called himself Brok the Breaker after the giant’s leg he made into a formidable two-handed war hammer. He knew the food would only be long enough to last him a day or two.
He had been to Craster’s Keep before, during his time spent out ranging beyond the Wall with his former brothers. Good men, and bad men too. That was how it went with the Watch. Some men could be trained to follow orders, swear some vows, and wear a black cloak. But evil men were often evil men, and broken vows were common amongst the ranks of the Watch. Craster’s Keep was guarded by one old fool, and swarming with scared little girls and food. Food that would keep him feasting like a king all the way up past the Antler river, where Rattleshirt had said he might find an old man named Varamyr Sixskins living in a hut surrounded by the biggest weirwoods he had ever seen. Just make sure you wear something…a little different when you get there. If you’re wearing all black your like to meet one of the warg’s furry friends before you reach the hut, and you wouldn’t want that. Rattleshirt’s last words to him rang in his ears.
“I’ve never bloody seen a warg that could control more than two animals before. A shadowcat and a bear?” Mance asked himself aloud.
The thought of this Sixskins’s steed, a vicious female snow bear that supposedly stood as tall as a giant on its hind legs, made Mance question his destination, but what other choice did he have. He had nowhere else to go, and if Rattleshirt had wanted him dead, he’d have done it when Mance was still clapped in bindings.
Them crows will probably catch you before nightfall. The words rang in his head.
Craster’s Keep, then to the Fist of the First Men, and then to the Antler. He folded up the map and put it away.
Once I get past the Antler, the Watch will give up and turn back to their warm fires and their hot suppers.
“I know the sort of men who will volunteer to come looking for me. And they won’t last a week before tucking tail and retreating back to The Shadow Tower.” Mance murmured to himself. “So long as it’s not the Halfhand.”
He was getting close to Craster’s Keep, and he needed to spy the bastard’s daughters before they spotted him. Mance didn’t want to kill Craster. If he could avoid detection, the brothers following him might go a different route and think he headed toward The Gorge instead. Seeking passage on a skiff where he would slip into the North and be headed south to King’s Landing.
But that would be the perfect scenario. Craster had many daughters, and most of them would run and scream bloody murder if they saw a man trying to steal from his wares.
When Mance could smell the delicious scent of goat roasting over a fire drifting on the cold dusk air, he dismounted the horse, tied her up to a thick birch tree, and continued on foot with his great sword across his back and his dagger strapped about his waist. Soon, Mance could faintly hear the sound of a man laughing, and the soft crunches in the snow as Craster’s wives scurried about the grounds that surrounded the glorified wooden shack Craster called a Keep. As Mance crept down into the shallows of a small creek, he noticed something queer.
Four horses draped in black furs and black saddles.
“Damn,” he muttered, slipping back below the bank of the small creek.
Mance could hear more laughter now, and the sound of metal tankards clanking clumsily together. A raven flew overhead in the direction of Mance’s horse, and The Shadow Tower.
Could these brothers here already know of my desertion? Had I been too slow fleeing the fort?
Cursing his luck, Mance turned back towards where he left his mount, and quickly abandoned the hopes of ever getting supplies unnoticed from the Keep. He leapt over a fallen log, immediately beginning to sprint again towards the horse.
Then he saw him. A lanky man with a dirty face and greasy matted hair, clad in a black fur cloak and struggling to put back on the rusty ring mail leggings that were far too large for him.
The man shouted, “It’s you!” as he ferociously thrashed to fasten the thick leather belt about his waist that secured his leggings. “He’s here! Over here!” the man shouted again and again.
Mance unslung the two-handed sword from his back and rushed the man, cleaving through cloth and flesh and bone as he sliced through the man’s right leg. He clutched the stump where his leg had been moments ago and stumbled into the creek splashing on his back. The blood gushing from his wound soon turned the tiny stream red as blood as the man screamed for his brothers to come to his aid. Mance raised his great sword over his head and drove it through the screaming man’s chest, silencing him instantly.
By the time he glanced back at Crastor’s Keep, there were two men in black furs stumbling out toward the horses, struggling to buckle on their sword belts. Mance looked away from the Keep and back at the brother he had just killed.
He knew there was no turning back now.
He could hear the men behind him mounting horses, and placed his foot on the dead man’s corpse, ripping the claymore out through flesh, leather, and ring mail.
Then, he ran.
I’ve just got to reach the horse.
Sword in hand, he ran, weaving between the trees and always keeping the Milkwater to his right. The sound of distant hooves rang behind him as he dashed towards his horse.
The beating hooves became louder and he knew he would not reach his horse before the man behind him could ride him down, so he veered to the right and headed toward the river in hopes that he could cross it and force the men off their mounts. At least then, the odds would be even if these were seasoned rangers.
As he ran, the hooves continued to grow louder, and now he could hear men shouting. The river was just in sight, but when he reached a clearing and saw the river, he heard the sound of rushing water.
It’s bloody melted. The river is rushing and now I’ve backed myself into a corner.
Mance turned, and saw one of the brothers charging towards him on horseback with a sword drawn. Mance planted his feet, and lifted the massive two-handed sword above his head. Just as the rider was nearly upon him, he stepped backward and swung the claymore with all his strength. The blow he dealt nearly ripped the weapon from his hands, but the cut it delivered had severed the man nearly in half from armpit to neck. What remained of his corpse slipped from the saddle and dropped to the ground as the horse wandered riderless towards the river.
The next two riders approached him in a more cautious manner, dismounting at the edge of the clearing and approaching on foot.
“You fucking killed him,” said one of the brothers. “Lyonel and that poor bastard Erreck you just nearly chopped in two. You’ll die for this you bloody deserter.”
“Haigh the Hero come to catch the deserter and fetch his head so the Lord Commander will suck your cock is it?” Mance said as he wiped the blood from his claymore against the furs about his waist.
Sir Haigh was a fool. The men of the Shadow Tower called him Haigh the Hero because he was always trying to make a name for himself. Glory was all Haigh cared about. It was this fixation that had landed him in the Watch when he tried to catch an outlaw wanted in the Riverlands and winded up killing someone’s squire who turned out to be a Lannister…and a Lannister always pays his debts. It was the Wall or his life.
Mance did not know the brother who was clad in rusty iron chain mail behind Sir Haigh, but he was outnumbered, and he knew he would need to find a way to dispatch his foes individually.
His foes were at least manageable. The man behind him was clearly not a threat, but Sir Haigh came from a noble family in the Riverlands that was sworn to House Frey, and his arms and armor were of good quality. The axe he carried was castle forged steel, nearly as long as the claymore that Mance carried, but heavy, and slow.
“Well come on. Get over there you craven,” Sir Haigh shouted at the man behind him.
The two men slowly approached Mance with weapons raised. The unknown brother was now in front, and took a cautious swing with his pitted long sword at Mance’s chest. Mance deflected the strike with his sword, as he sidestepped a leap from Sir Haigh’s two-handed axe. Swiftly, Mance kicked Sir Haigh in the side of his ribs and knocked him to the ground, repelling another feeble swing from the other man.
“Fucking kill him!” Sir Haigh shouted as he clumsily regained his feet.
Mance would not lose the opportunity to even the odds. He raised his claymore and brought it down on the brother as he was raising his cracked wooden shield, crunching through both the shield and through the man’s arm. The brother fell backwards clutching the stump where his arm used to be and began to scream.
“Good. Now it’s just you, and me,” Sir Haigh said as he strode towards Mance.
He lunged forward with a downward attack as Mance parried the blow. Another sweeping attack came at his side as Sir Haigh pressed his assault. Mance continued to repel his blows as he let the massive axe do its work and wear its wielder out. He was beginning to slow, and Mance caught an opening, driving the pommel of his sword into Sir Haigh’s face. As the Hero stumbled backwards, Mance swung the claymore around his body and removed his head in a single sweep.
Mance turned his attention to the man screaming on the ground that was quickly bleeding out from the missing limb. A quick thrust to his chest finished the battle. When it was over, Mance returned to his horse and quickly rode away from Craster’s Keep and deeper into the Haunted Forest. When he finally came to a stop, Mance dismounted his horse and took a moment to catch his breath. There was no turning back now.