Benjen Stark was more than a week into the Haunted Forest when he heard the baby's cry - an impossible sound out here, where even grown men perish more than not. He brought his horse to a stop and studied his surroundings. Towards the sound and far through the trees, he spotted the broad and bulding shape of Craster, who was placing a newborn babe in the snow. Without a second look at the child, Craster stood and hurried into the trees. The bloody bastard, leaving this little one to die. Benjen knew Craster well enough to not be surprised. Just then, a much taller, leaner shape appeared from the other direction. Before it even left the shadows, Benjen knew what it was. He'd heard the tales enough to recognize the pale skin and glowing blue eyes. The White Walker leaned down and collected Craster's gift from the snow. Benjen expected a terrible fate for the child, but to his surprise, the Other simply held the baby to its chest. What in seven hells is this then? Benjen had heard so much of the murderous Others. What did this one intend if not to devour the child? As First Ranger, he knew it was his duty to find the answer. With the child in hand, the Other turned to the North, headed back the way it came. And Benjen followed.
He tracked the Other for many miles, struggling to keep his distance as to avoid detection and maintain pace as to not lose the Other altogether. If not for the child's faint cries, he would've been turned around long ago. His horse wasn't much help, either. It was becoming exhausted from pushing through the deep snow, climbing rocks, and dragging its belly over the hidden brush. It would occasionally let out a series of angry grunts to protest the journey, and Benjen's heart would pause each time. He knew the horse was well beyond its limits now. Rather than allow the poor beast to betray his position, he dismounted and pointed its nose back towards Castle Black. With a brisk slap to the rear end, the horse leapt forward and out of sight. Once the horse reached the Wall, he knew, the Old Bear would promptly send a party of his brothers to find him. Benjen traveled many miles more on foot, waist deep in snow, soaked through his leathers, and unable to feel his hands or feet. He could hardly see through the thick fog of falling show. He could hardly hear through the howling winds. Yet, dutifully, he followed the cries of Crastor's forfeited child.
Benjen began to wonder just how far this White Walker had taken him. He'd already fought his way through the snow for a great distance more than he'd traveled in the past. He began to wonder just how much longer he'd be able to go without food and fire. He'd already become more weary than he'd ever knew a man could. He felt his heart winding down, as if it was preparing for a long rest. He felt his breath freezing in his throat, as if it were afraid to come out into the cold. He had long forgotten his legs, a relief after his joints and muscles burned for so long. He wondered if his eyes were open or if they’d frozen shut, for the world around him now was solid black. Struggling to suck the frozen air into his lungs, he wondered how many breaths more he would win. Piece by piece his body had betrayed him, much like that old craven horse, and he could now feel himself falling forward. Ever so slowly, he collapsed onto his knees and outstretched hands. The waist deep snow was holding him up, he realized, and now he’d reached its clearing.
He had little sense of what he was resting upon, since he could no longer see or feel, but its lack of give told him it whatever it was, it was as solid as any steel. The burning cold that radiated up through his arms and into his core told him whatever it was, it was as cold as any ice. It could only be ice, he thought. But it was more than ice. It was impossibly cold. And it burned him even in the parts of him that had long gone numb. Benjen laid there for a moment, frozen in place, not sure he’d be able to move even if he could muster the strength, and he realized he had come too far. He’d traveled well out of reach of his brothers at the Wall. Too far to make it back on his own. He doubted even the Wildlings wandered this far North. He was in a hopeless place then, with nothing more to do than die. But the baby still cried. His duty was still in front of him and getting further away. He could at least get the answer he came for, may his soul rest with this one final task fulfilled. He rested his elbows onto the ice and pushed himself forward, dragging his lifeless body behind him. He slid along with ease.
After a moment, the baby's cries grew much closer. The sound, he realized, was no longer moving away from him. The White Walker must have discarded the child, or else he’s reached his journey’s end. Benjen slid himself forward, just a few body lengths more toward the child, and just then, the world opened up all around him. Things took shape far and near as he began to see once more. The first thing he noticed was the sky above, with ribbons of bright green and purple glow ripping across the night. Then, he saw the black jagged wall of mountains twisting up from the horizon, stretching from one end of his view to the other. He also noticed that the snow, heavy and thick, was not falling here, and there was not a cloud above him. Below, was ice that glowed an incandescent blue, perfect as glass and stretching away from him as far as his eyes could see. At the far end of his vision stood the Other, still holding Craster's crying babe, and standing amidst a dozen more White Walkers in this field of frozen blue. Benjen knew there was no chance to preserve himself now, yet with great caution, he slid forward.
Every inch that he slid across the ice was becoming more and more excruciating. Benjen could feel the flesh tearing away from his legs and belly. His elbows were blistered and burning, and he could now see the bone in his arms. He was leaving pieces of himself behind, frozen to the ground. This immaculate ice was eating him alive. Still, he slid. His duty was just ahead yet. Not much further to go. He was closing in on the Others and their tiny prize. They were standing around what appeared to be an altar jutting up from the ice, made of ice itself. The baby was screaming now but still alive somehow. The White Walker with the child stood at the center, holding the baby away from him, offering it up for another. One of its fellow Others stepped forward. This one was leaner with horns of ice circling its head like a crown. This Other, whom somehow looked even more menacing than the rest, reached toward the child and placed a single outstretched finger upon the infant’s brow. The screaming stopped.
The baby was silent now but still alive somehow. Its pink newborn flesh turned white as milk. Its tiny eyes were now glowing blue sapphires. And they were looking right at Benjen Stark, along with a dozen pair just like them. Benjen felt his heart pumping again, faintly. A touch of warmth just barely filled his cheeks. His shoulders trembled ever so slightly. It was a meager attempt, he knew, to push his body to act, to stand and run and flee from this dangerous place. It was too late, however. What was left of him was fused to the ice and unresponsive. So, he simply stared back at the Others began their approach. Come then, he wanted to say. His duty was fulfilled, and he knew his watch was ending. He was not afraid.
Despite the curios thing that brought him here or the peculiar act he'd witnessed, he paid them no mind. Despite the terrible beasts coming to steal the last bit of life from him, he spared them not a moment’s thought. Instead, Benjen thought of his brothers, not of the black but of his blood. He thought of Eddard and how he’d kept him sane through all their family’s tragedies. He regretted that he ran to the Wall instead of being there when his brother needed his strength the most. He thought of Lyanna and how much joy she'd brought him in their youth. He regretted that he'd not rest with his beloved sister in the crypt beneath their family’s ancestral home. And he thought of Jon. He regretted all the things he'd never teach the boy... the things he'd never be able to tell him. Hurry then, he wanted to say. Winter has come, and he was ready to lose himself to it forever. He was not afraid.
When the life inside him had finally frozen over, Benjen dropped his head to the ice. He surrendered the cold and black and waited for the end to come. As the darkness took hold, all he could see was the ice. He lost himself in its radiance and the glowing blue sapphires reflecting up at him. Suddenly, a cold hand closed tight around his jaw. The hand pulled his head up from the ice, and Benjen locked eyes with the Other with the crown of horns. Its eyes reached out at him, into him, and filled his mind with thoughts that were not his own. Where do you come from?, the thoughts demanded, How does mankind come to be here? Why? Benjen answered with a thought of his own, Because I had to know the truth. The mouth beneath the blue eyes cracked open to reveal a serrated set of teeth, grinning like some monster from one of Old Nan's stories. Well, then, mankind. The truth you shall know… but not in this life.
Just then, Benjen felt a flash of warmth rush through him. No, not warmth. Cold. A pleasant and peaceful kind of cold. It was in his fingertips. It was in his legs. It was in his face and his lips. He could even feel it in his belly, like a fire that did not burn. His body was returning to him, reinvigorated with a new kind of energy. He felt alive again and whole and strong. Powerful. The hand let go of his face. The eyes moved away. From far above, in a language he'd never heard but words he understood clearly as the common tongue, the mouth beneath the blue eyes said, "Rise, my kin." And Benjen rose.