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Jon and Stonesnake, a ranger of the Night’s Watch, ascend a mountain toward a small wildling camp. They sneak up on three wildlings and kill two of them. The third, a woman named Ygritte, yields, and Jon spares her over Stonesnake’s objections. Ygritte tells them that thousands of wildlings have gathered in the Frostfangs, but she will not say why. Ygritte tells them the story of a former King-Beyond-The-Wall, Bael the Bard. She says the current Starks are descended from Bael. Jon is unsure what to make of the story. In the morning, Qhorin and the rest of the men arrive, and Qhorin tells Jon that he must kill Ygritte. Qhorin leads the rest of the men away as Jon prepares to slay her, but at the last minute he lets her go.
Dontos tells Sansa that plans are underway for her escape. After, Sansa runs into the Hound, who berates her for her romantic notions about knights. The next morning, Sansa discovers that she has gotten her period. Terrified that Joffrey can now bed her, she tries destroying her sheets, but the servants discover what happened. Sansa meets with Cersei, who tells her that she has entered into womanhood, which is messy and full of pain, and that love is a poison.
Qhorin tells Jon that Mance Rayder was once a great ranger of the Night’s Watch, and that the wildlings should not be underestimated. Qhorin knows that Jon spared Ygritte. In a dream that night, Jon is a direwolf and sees the mass of people Mance has gathered. An eagle attacks him in the dream, and he wakes and tells what he saw. The men suspect that Jon is a warg. The party moves on and notices an eagle that seems to be watching them. They discover Ghost nearby, recovering from an eagle attack. Qhorin says they have been spotted and orders them to retreat. Squire Dalbridge, one of the men, stays behind to defend a pass. They hear a wildling horn in the distance.
Tyrion receives news from the north that Theon killed Bran and Rickon Stark. Tyrion tells Cersei that Joffrey needs to be seen during the coming battle with Stannis, though she wants to keep him safe inside the castle. Cersei tells Tyrion that she has Shae and that she suspects he wants to kill Joffrey and Tommen, which he denies. Cersei brings her captive in. Unbeknownst to her, the captive is not Shae, but a prostitute from the brothel. Tyrion plays along and warns Cersei that he will get revenge on her. Tyrion returns to his room, where Shae is waiting.
Catelyn tells Brienne that Theon killed Bran and Rickon and mounted their heads on the Winterfell walls. Rodrik is marching on Winterfell to reclaim it. Catelyn says that Robb will avenge his brothers, but that Sansa and Arya are unprotected. Catelyn confronts Jaime Lannister. Jaime tells her that he will answer her questions truthfully if she does the same for him. Jaime admits that he is Joffrey’s father and that he pushed Bran from the window, but he denies having anything to do with the attempted assassination of Bran with Tyrion’s dagger. Catelyn realizes he is telling the truth and that Littlefinger must have deceived her. Catelyn gives Jaime the updates on the war that he asks for, and Jaime tells her the brutal way that Aerys Targaryen, the king he killed, murdered Eddard’s father and brother. Jaime taunts Catelyn about Jon Snow, Eddard’s bastard, and Catelyn calls for Brienne’s sword.
Theon has nightmares about killing Bran and Rickon. The people of Winterfell hate him, and several of his men die in mysterious circumstances. Asha arrives with twenty men, far fewer than Theon needs to hold the castle against Rodrik. Asha mocks Theon for killing children. Theon says the boys defied him, but inside he is tormented. Asha leaves with half her force. Reek offers to go raise as many men as he can to defend the castle, and Theon accepts, though he distrusts Reek. That night, he dreams of the dead and of Robb and Grey Wind coming for him. When he wakes, he realizes that he does not belong at Winterfell. Theon looks at the heads on the wall. He reflects that once they were tarred, no one could tell that they were not actually Bran and Rickon, but the miller’s sons.
Jon and Catelyn learn details in this section that change their perspectives. Jon has the first inkling that he might not be merely human but a warg, which is not a realization he happily invites. Moreover, his conversation with Ygritte after her capture causes him to reevaluate his way of thinking in a few regards. Ygritte comments that the Starks live in the South, for instance, and when Jon objects, she points out that everything beyond the Wall is south to them. The distinction isn't momentous, but it illustrates the notion that so-called truths are at least sometimes based on perspective. The more important information Ygritte tells Jon is about Bael the Bard's dealings with the Starks. Though Jon doesn't necessarily believe the story, he cannot conclusively counter it either, causing him to question what he thought he knew about his family's bloodline. Catelyn (and very likely the reader) has a similar experience with Jaime, when he tells Catelyn the truth about Bran and then describes what sort of king Aerys Targaryen was. Catelyn sees that the man she and countless others have villainized for slaying Aerys may have in fact had good reason to do so, and that perhaps, whatever else he is, he is honest.
Sansa, meanwhile, continues to learn the hard truth that life is not at all like her romantic fantasies. The Hound actually mocks her naivete after she calls him brave for saving her, and he berates her for her romantic ideals about knights. Knights, he says, don't exist. There are only the strong and the weak. Later, when Sansa gets her period for the first time and tells Cersei disappointedly that she thought it would be magical, Cersei quickly disabuses her of that idea. She tells Sansa that a woman’s life is mostly mess and suffering. Though Sansa wants to disagree with both the Hound and Cersei and continue to believe that ideas like honor and chivalry are real, all her experiences in the novels thus far have only confirmed the Hound's and Cersei's words. It is clear that her outlook on the world is growing more cynical as a consequence.
Where before the animosity between Tyrion and Cersei had remained in check, it now turns to outright attacks as both wrestle for control of King's Landing. The meetings between Tyrion and Cersei have been filled with their jibes at one another and their mutual contempt, but they have generally maintained a sort of truce knowing that both wanted the same end. Here, however, Cersei crosses that line by threatening to kill the woman she thinks Tyrion loves if any harm comes to Joff or Tommen, whom Tyrion's men are looking after. The threat, she seems to believe, will keep her sons safe and give her leverage over Tyrion in their power struggle. The move, however, prompts Tyrion to reciprocate with his own hostility as he warns her, albeit not sincerely as his inner thoughts make clear, that he will inflict the same harm on Tommen that Cersei inflicts on the woman, including beatings and rapes. Cersei is so infuriated that she lunges at him, but Tyrion catches her arm and hurts her. The episode suggests that a barrier has been broken, and the hostility between Tyrion and Cersei will no longer remain in check.
Theon's chapter revolves around his desperate attempt to maintain his control as he battles against several different forces. These forces are his father and the people of the Iron Islands, who appear to feel Theon has been away too long and is now more Stark than Greyjoy; his sister Asha, who is main rival for his father's respect as she is a seasoned sailor and commands the respect of her father and the Iron Islanders; and Theon's own inexperience, ineptitude, and pride. These last factors leave Theon at once uncertain what to do but unwilling to admit it as he attempts to prove to his father and everyone else that he deserves to one day rule the Iron Islands. They are demonstrated most clearly in the faked executions of Bran and Rickon. Theon wants to show that he is fearsome and to be respected, but the plan backfires in that the people of Winterfell see him only with contempt, apparently leading to the murders of his men that follow. Even the battle-hardened Asha is horrified at what she thinks Theon has done, and she has the sense to realize how foolish it was, precisely because of how it makes Theon look. Instead of consolidating Theon's grip on power, his deception has weakened it.