The book begins as three men of the Night’s Watch, Waymar, Will, and Gared, search for a small group of wildlings, uncivilized people who live north of the giant wall that protects the Seven Kingdoms. Scouting ahead, Will finds the wildlings dead. He returns to Waymar and Gared with the news and tells them the wildlings appear to have frozen to death. The recent weather, however, has not been nearly cold enough to kill a person. Will and Gared sense that something is wrong, and Gared suggests they build a fire. Waymar arrogantly demands that they press on. The three head to the location where Will found the bodies, but they are gone. A group of ghostly white figures, known as the Others, surround Waymar. He duels with one of the figures while Will silently watches from a tree. Waymar is killed, but when Will climbs down, Waymar’s reanimated body rises up and strangles him.
Bran attends the execution of Gared, who ran away after Will and Waymar died but was caught and condemned as a deserter. Ned Stark, the Lord of Winterfell, performs the execution himself, using the greatsword Ice to behead Gared. Robb Stark argues that Gared died bravely, while Jon Snow, Ned’s bastard son, believes that Gared was terrified. Ned explains to Bran that a man can only truly be brave when he is in fact afraid. Ned also explains his belief that the man who passes a death sentence ought to perform the execution himself. On the ride back to Winterfell, home of the Stark family, the party discovers a dead direwolf with five live pups. Ned’s men are about to kill the animals when Jon points out that the pups are the same in number and gender, three male and two female, as Ned’s trueborn children. He says it’s a sign that the Starks were meant to have them. As the party rides away, Jon discovers a sixth male pup with white fur and red eyes and takes it for himself.
Catelyn walks to find Ned in the holy forest within Winterfell’s walls, known as the godswood. Catelyn reflects on the meaning of the words of the Stark house, “Winter Is Coming.” While Ned is cleaning his sword, Ice, he tells Catelyn that Gared was scared to madness. Catelyn informs Ned that Jon Arryn, the former Hand of the King, is dead. Ned is deeply saddened, since Jon Arryn was like a second father to him while the man raised and defended Ned and Robert. Ned is excited to hear that Robert, his old friend and now the king of Westeros, is coming to visit Winterfell. However, Ned bears a grudge against Robert’s wife Cersei and her family, the Lannisters. In the war that Ned and Robert fought against the Targaryens, who ruled Westeros before Robert, the Lannisters did not join Robert until his victory was nearly certain.
East of the continent Westeros, across the Narrow Sea, in the city of Pentos, Viserys prepares his sister, Daenerys, for a feast to take place that night. At the feast, she is to meet Drogo, the Dothraki warlord, or khal, her brother is forcing her to marry. Viserys and Daenerys are the last in the line of the royal family Targaryen. They fled Westeros when Ned and Robert defeated the Targaryen armies. Daenerys’s only memories of childhood are of a big house with a red door on the Braavosi Islands. Since leaving the house, she and Viserys have wandered from host to host, and for the last year they have lived at the home of the wealthy merchant Illyrio. Daenerys wants to go home, but she is not entirely sure where her home is. Her brother assures her that her home is in Westeros. Viserys is forcing Daenerys to marry Drogo so that Drogo, with his massive army, will help them retake Westeros.
Back in Winterfell, Robert arrives and immediately visits Winterfell’s crypts with Ned. There they pay their respects to Lyanna, who was Ned’s sister and Robert’s bride-to-be before she was kidnapped and raped by Rhaegar Targaryen. Rhaegar’s actions were part of the cause of Robert’s Rebellion against the mad king Aerys Targaryen. Robert bitterly remembers killing Rhaegar on the Trident River. Ned recalls how Lyanna died of a fever. Robert fondly reminisces about the time he and Ned spent together as children, and he tells Ned how much he hates being king. Robert asks Ned to be the new Hand of the King, which Ned expected. He also asks Ned to wed his eleven-year-old daughter Sansa to Robert and Cersei’s twelve-year-old son Joff, which is a surprise to Ned. Ned does not wish to accept the position as Hand, but he asks for time to consider the offer.
The prologue sets an eerie and gruesome tone for the rest of the novel. The chapter presents an enemy that seems unlikely to concern itself with the political conflict mentioned in the book’s title, the game of thrones. The Others are sentient, sword-wielding, have a language of their own, and do not appear to be human. Indeed, though they kill all the humans they encounter in the prologue, it seems that their victims, like Waymar and the missing camp of wildlings, do not stay dead. The book’s human characters may form sinister plots against one another, but the Others present a far more serious, supernatural threat. The most dangerous part could be that no one realizes the Others are a threat. Ned believes them to be extinct, but Catelyn reminds him that up until now direwolves were believed to be all but extinct. The supernatural elements of the prologue alert the reader that the world of the book is one of low-level magic. The threat of the Others puts the book’s political conflicts into perspective.