The story opens with a prologue and if this is your first time opening the book, you might foolishly believe that the prologue would be logically followed by a “chapter 1”. We’ll return to that assumption when we make it that far. If we make it that far and in George R.R. Martin’s books, that’s a big if! (George R.R. Martin shall henceforth be known as GRRM, pronounced “grim,” roll the R.)
Three men are arguing amongst themselves: Waymar Royce, who is a lord; Gared, who is old; and Will, who at one point in his life had a mother who told him about dead people. They’re arguing about some dead wildlings they found – and we can infer from the argument that “wilding” refers to people rather than animals. Guess it’s not a hunting expedition.
To summarize: the book’s not even started yet and a whole bunch of people are already dead, and a smaller bunch of other people are reminiscing about things their mommies and nannies told them about dead people while nursing them. Welcome to the world inside GRRM’s head: tits and death await you here.
Speeding this along: the men belong to the Night’s Watch. (I looked it up: Terry Pratchett’s Guards! Guards! came out seven years before A Game of Thrones; Sergei Lukyanenko’s Night Watch — two years after. This is the kind of research you can expect from these recaps!) The Night’s Watch’s based on the Wall, which is a whole lot south of where they are now. Gared and Will have some experience venturing north, but Ser Royce is an 18-year-old son of a noble line whose heir and spare positions have already been filled, and his crowning achievement to date is getting his hands on a Halloween costume of The Gimp so that he can look the part of a Sworn Brother of the Night’s Watch.
Think about it for a second: their job is to make regular excursions into an area that is always — always — covered in snow and filled with hostile wildlings who want to kill them. So whose idea was it that the logical choice for the uniform was all black. Get these people some snow camo, is all I’m saying.
Anyway: the two experienced Brothers are nervous, but Royce is too young to understand the difference between cowardice and fear. He interrogates Will about the camp full of dead wildlings. Smart enough to figure out it’s not yet cold enough for people to freeze to death, but not smart enough to think that something that killed 8 people can probably kill 3 just as easy, Royce decides he wants to see for himself. Royce is like an ME from a crime drama: the dead speak to him and he wants to listen to what they have to say.
Royce and Will are going to walk to the corpses and Gared is going to watch the horses. Gared wants to start a fire and Royce yells at him for being stupid: a fire would make them visible to enemies. That’s as opposed to the invisibility granted to them by Royce’s big black fur cloak. Royce is too stupid to live, so I really don’t mind that he’s about to eat it, but I’m kind of outraged that poor Will and Gared, who are smart enough to know better, are going down with him. But this is A Song of Ice and Fire, so death is frequent and rarely fair. This prologue is just gently easing readers into that truth.
Royce and Will get to the wilding camp and there is still no one living there, but no one dead either. Will climbs a tree for a better vantage point and Royce is attacked by an Other. The Other is presumably humanoid, because it has feet, though whether it uses them to walk is questionable, its movements described as “sliding”, it has icy blue eyes and white skin. The Other also has armor, a weapon (an otherworldly weapon) and the ability to lower the temperature to insta-frostbite levels. There’s more than one, but the first one gets to duel Royce. Everyone gets to join in on hacking-to-death frenzy after Royce’s sword shatters and he falls. Death by stupidity.
And revival by magical fuckery! Will gets down from the tree when he thinks it’s safe and gets ambushed by Royce Zombie. So, not only does Royce stubbornly lead his people into danger, he gets to snack on their brains for dessert.
It’s GRRM’s world and they’re all just dying in it.