Mance could remember all of their faces now. But the four men who had once been his brothers were dead, and Mance had no choice now but to hope the wildlings would pity him enough to let him join their ranks. Perhaps they would simply try to kill him for being a crow. Maybe this warg the Lord of Bones called Sixskins would unleash his throng of beasts upon him and devour his flesh. Nevertheless, Mance was out of options. He had hoped that Rattleshirt did not want to kill him, but Mance did not trust him.
The day was coming to an end, and the sun was beginning to set behind the thick canopy of the Haunted Forest. Orange rays of sunlight scattered about the floor of the forest as the trees blew in the brisk air. After fleeing Craster’s Keep, Mance had run his horse until he was forced to stop due to the darkness. He did not want to lose his horse to a broken leg, and the moon was far too new to provide him with ample light to navigate the dense forest. The air was thick with moisture and the smell of rain came drifting on the wind. He would soon need to stop for the day and find shelter from the oncoming showers.
Mance found a large birch tree that had fallen long ago and decided it as good a place as any to make his camp for the night. He walked his horse to the tree and tied him up, removing a small hatchet from a saddlebag. With it, he quickly severed a number of branches from a nearby fir tree and laid the thick branches against the fallen tree, forming a small shelter. He unrolled a thick fur sleeping mat and placed it under the shelter alongside the rest of his supplies. Mance glanced over his dwindling supplies, removing the small jug of sour cider and what remained of the stringy jerky before sitting down on the furs. He removed the cork with his teeth, took a long sip, and retched a piece of jerky free from his hand.
The woods became eerily silent as he sat on the cold ground and surveyed the landscape. This far into the Haunted Forest and it was easy to see why men were so afraid of it. Birch trees reached upwards toward the sky all around where Mance sat. The pale white trees were so close together that navigating them seemed almost impossible at times, and the black spots that flecked the birch trees seemed to twist and form bizarre, frightening shapes. Mance closed his eyes and heard the sounds of his horse shuffling about in search of any green grass or moss that might be sprouting up around the base of the trees. He could also hear the gentle sounds of the trees scraping against one another, and the leaves rustling in the wind.
It was almost as if he could hear them whispering to him, reassuring him that what he was doing was right.
“Leaving the Night’s Watch is the right decision,” Mance reassured himself aloud.
When he found himself in total silence such as this, Mance always began to crave music, but the lute that he had taken with him from the Shadow Tower was split nearly in two when the arrow struck him days ago after he was attacked by Rattleshirt’s warband. He cursed his luck and pushed himself to his feet.
This rain will mean a cold wet night indeed.
The rain that was coming soon would mean firewood would be scarce in the coming days, but a fire would be a risky since it gave away his position. However, the warmth it would provide combined with the ability to dry his cloak and gear after the showers had passed was tempting.
Mance reached up and scratched his jaw, toying with the decision to build a fire. The thought of potentially attracting wolves, wildlings, rangers, shadowcats, or any other threat ultimately deterred him from a fire.
The sun had almost set by the time Mance had finished setting up his small camp, and long fingers of darkness were stretching out across the forest, pulling what remained of the sunlight with them into the night. In the distance, he could hear the sounds of the night. Wolves could be heard howling at the young moon, and the nightly tune of the crickets was beginning to spring up all around the surrounding woods.
Sleep came uneasily that night. Mance struggled to find any comfort in the shoddy lean-to that he had built, and the rains had drenched his clothing in just a short few hours.
At least the rain drowned out the more disturbing sounds of the Haunted Forest, though being drenched was hardly worth that small benefit.
The rains continued to fall throughout the night, keeping him in a light state of sleep. Mance awoke several times that night with the feeling that someone was near, watching him sleep, and waiting to strike at a moment of weakness.
I will not let them surprise me. I will not let them catch me and hang me for a deserter, and any beast in these woods will not slay me.
Through the rain, Mance could faintly make out the sounds of footsteps. He sat up on his bedroll straining to find where the sound was coming from as he hopelessly scoured the thick birch forest with his eyes. The sun was still an hour from rising, but a dim early morning light was just beginning to illuminate the black of the night. Mance closed his eyes, and listened deeply to the woods. The footsteps were getting louder, and now he could pinpoint their exact location.
Mance rose to his feet, unslung his sword, and faced the direction of the approaching sounds. Three shadows approached his small camp from the south. Judging from their height, he knew these were human figures.
Supposing that these shadows were tracking him and already knew of his presence, Mance called out to them, “Stop where you are unless you want to die. Approach no further and blood need not be spilled here.”
Mance received only silence in return, and the shadows continued to shuffle through the dense forest towards him. It was too hard to distinguish whether or not these were rangers, or wildlings, but since they approached from the south, Mance assumed these were more rangers tracking him from Craster’s Keep. The four rangers he had killed meant the Watch would take him as a serious threat. He was a murder now…and a deserter.
Mance cursed himself. He had been sloppy running from the Keep. His movements would have been easy to track as he hastily ran on his horse up the Milkwater towards the Antler. His thoughts drifted back to the raven he saw flying overhead moments before he slayed the man who was returning from a piss.
Could that raven have called for more rangers?
“HALT I SAID!” Mance shouted as he watched the shades bear down on him. “I have already slain four of you. Return to your commander and tell him you found nothing. We need not fight.”
This time, the shades apprehensively stopped several yards from his camp and exchanged disquieting whispers.
The tallest man in the front of the group called out, “We are no crows fool, and if we wanted ye dead we’d have filled you full o’ arrows long ago.”
“I’d like to see you try and hit a shadow in this darkness,” Mance shot back.
The man replied with a burst of laughter, “Har! Are you really so eager to be dead deserter? There’s enough light out here to skin an elk. Put down that damn sword and listen to what I have to say.”
Mance tightened his grip around the leather hilt of his claymore shifting his weight as his eyes studied the three men. Reluctantly, he dropped his sword to the ground and placed the tip of the blade in the forest floor. The massive sword was nearly five feet long, and came up to meet his chest. He placed two hands upon the pommel and leaned against the sword.
I will hear this man, but if he means to kill me, there will be four bodies for the wolves to feast upon come morning.
“Aye, I will hear what you have to say,” said Mance. “But approach me closer and give me your name so that I might know the as a friend.”
“Har! A bold one this is,” the man replied as he strode forward towards Mance, signaling to the other two men to hold their positions.
Mance could now see the thick birch forest that swallowed him and the strangers more clearly. It was either the glow from the new day approaching, or his eyes had finally adjusted to the blackness, but Mance could now more clearly make out all three figures. The two men who stood several feet away were very short and thin. He judged that they were likely young boys and each of them held a short bow with a quiver of arrows loosely hung about their waists. Mance could now see that the largest man who was now walking towards him was massive. He was a broad man with a red-brown beard and a wide face covered in hair. On his arms, which sprouted out from a fur jerkin like thick branches of a tree, were golden bands engraved with runes of the First Men.
“North o’ the Wall they call me Tormund. Tormund Giantsbane by many. The two saplings behind me are me sons Toregg and Torwynd. I’ve heard a lot about ye Mance Rayder,” the tall man said as he outstretched a gloved hand.
Mance firmly grasped Tormund’s hand and replied, “Well met Tormund. I had not expected such a warm welcome from the wildlings.”
“Well now don’t be too hasty there crow,” Tormund shot back. “I watched you as you slew those three crows yesterday by the Milkwater. You might have killed a common enemy to survive, but don’t think I won’t cut you down if I see a reason not to trust you, and my lads are a good shot if you manage to take me first. ‘Cept for Torwynd that is har!”
“Actually it were four men I killed, though I tried to avoid the unnecessary bloodshed,” Mance replied. “But how do you seem to know so much about me already?”
Tormund reached up to comb his beard as he glanced back at his sons. “Up here we free folk don’t get along so easy as you southerners do, but let’s just say I know a Lord o’ Bones who reluctantly told me of a deserter who saved him from a pack of dire wolves. So I sought you out and discovered you along the river that day and watched as you so skillfully cut down those men. There’s something stirring out here in the Land of Always Winter, and I have need of every able blade I can trust.”
Mance reached into a pack and retrieved the small jug of sour cider. He uncorked the bottle and took a swig, handing it to Tormund with an outstretched arm.
“You have my sword Tormund Giantsbane, I swear not to betray you and your kin so long as we can drink as friends,” said Mance.
Tormund grasped the bottle and took a long drink. “Welcome to the free folk Mance Rayder.”