At the fortress of Dragonstone, Maester Cressen serves Lord Stannis Baratheon. After the death of his brother, King Robert Baratheon, Lord Stannis wants to conquer the Seven Kingdoms as their rightful king. None of the common people and very few of the noble houses will support Lord Stannis as their king. Cressen advises Lord Stannis against trying to take the throne, but a priestess named Melisandre convinces Lord Stannis that he can win the Seven Kingdoms if he assassinates his brother and competitor, Renly.
Arya Stark is a 10-year-old nobleman's daughter disguised as a peasant boy. After her father, Eddard Stark, is executed in King's Landing, a man named Yoren cares for her. He decides to take her back to her home in Winterfell.
Arya's sister, Sansa, is attending a small jousting tournament in honor of her fiancé King Joffrey's 13th birthday. Sansa is disgusted by having to act like an adoring sweetheart to the boy who had her father killed, but she hides her hatred of Joffrey in order to save her life. Sansa receives a message from Ser Dontos, a knight she saved from being drowned by King Joffrey. Dontos wants to help her escape from the capital city, but he is not certain how he will accomplish this.
Joffrey's uncle, Tyrion Lannister, rides into King's Landing with an army of Lannister soldiers and wild men who joined his cause. Tyrion takes his place as the Hand of the King, working together with Cersei, Joffrey's mother, to keep Joffrey from pointless violence and poor decisions. Cersei fears attacks from Lord Stannis, Renly Baratheon and Robb Stark, the newly crowned King of the North. Tyrion exiles Janos Slynt, the man who helped kill Eddard Stark. Then he deals with small matters of justice, as the entire city is falling into chaos. Food is scarce, and the city is overcrowded with refugees from nearby lands. Queen Regent Cersei spends her time preparing the city for battle while young King Joffrey simply keeps himself amused. Tyrion talks to important men in the city and finds ways to make Maester Pycelle, Petyr Baelish (Littlefinger) and Lord Varys all support him and carry out his plans.
At Castle Black, Eddard Stark's illegitimate son, Jon Snow, prepares for a ranging mission beyond the great Wall with other members of the Night's Watch. After the group of boys pledged to belong to the Night's Watch are attacked by Ser Amory Lorch, Arya's protector, Yoren, is killed. As Jon ranges beyond the Wall, he and other members of the Night's Watch lodge with a wild man named Craster. Craster marries his own daughters, and one of them, Gilly, begs for Jon to rescue her and her unborn child from Craster. Jon has to travel onward without helping her.
Arya and a few of her friends march onward, trying to find food. Arya reveals to Gendry that she is a girl, and the daughter of Lord Stark. Arya, Gendry and another named Hot Pie are captured by Gregor Clegane's soldiers, who are in the service of the Lannisters. Arya travels with a group of captives who are to become the slaves of Lord Lannister. Gregor Clegane has men, women and children tortured to death in every village they pass. The host arrives at the castle of Harrenhal, where Arya becomes a kitchen maid.
Robb Stark sends a message to Cersei: If she frees his sisters and renounces all claims to the land of Winterfell, he will be ready to offer her peace. Catelyn, mother of Arya, Sansa, Bran and Rickon Stark, learns that the Lannister armies have been ransacking many towns and homes across the realm.
At Dragonstone, Ser Davos watches as the statues and shrines of the Faith are destroyed to make way for a new religion that follows the Lord of Light and his priestess Melisandre.
Daenerys Targaryen and her ragtag group of followers travel across a harsh landscape as they follow the bloodred comet to whatever fate it might bring them. Daenerys fears for the lives of her three young dragons, and for her people who are dying along the way. They find a deserted town and rest there, regaining their strength. Daenerys rides into the city of Qarth, where the Qartheen leaders are ready to offer her soldiers and ships to win back the Seven Kingdoms.
Catelyn Stark travels to meet with Renly. Lord Stannis attacks Renly's people. In Winterfell, Bran gains two new companions, Meera and Jojen Reed. Jojen has dreams of the future, and he believes that Bran is a warg, a person who can become one with animals.
In King's Landing, Joffrey has Sansa beaten bloody because her brother Robb is attacking the Lannisters far away. Tyrion rescues her from Joffrey. Catelyn watches as Renly is killed by a shadow warrior, an act of dark magic ordered by Lord Stannis. A female knight named Brienne swears to serve Catelyn.
At Harrenhal, Arya meets one of the men whose lives she spared in a fire. Jaqen H'ghar repays her kindness by promising to kill three men of her choosing. Arya picks a cruel soldier named Chiswyck, and Jaqen makes his death look like an accident. Later, Arya asks Jaqen to kill her harsh taskmaster, Weese.
Theon Greyjoy attacks and overthrows Winterfell. Arya asks her dangerous friend Jaqen help her begin a revolt at Harrenhal. Jaqen kills many guards and releases some prisoners before changing his appearance completely, as if by magic, and leaving Arya. Arya becomes the cupbearer and servant to Roose Bolton, the new lord of Harrenhal.
Daenerys sees a number of nightmarish, magical sights contained in the rooms at the Undying City. She sees chaotic visions of the future.
In King's Landing, the starving peasants revolt against the nobles. Tyrion restores a modicum of peace. In the sea outside of King's Landing, most of Lord Stannis' fleet catches fire, due to some careful battle strategy by Tyrion. Lord Stannis dies and Lord Tywin Lannister enters the city. Tyrion is wounded and disfigured in the battle. Arya Stark and her friends Hot Pie and Gendry escape from Harrenhal. Jon Snow is taken captive by wildlings of the North.
Catelyn Stark is told that her two youngest sons, Bran and Rickon, have been killed by Theon Greyjoy. Later, the reader learns that Bran and Rickon are not dead. Their servant Osha saved them and kept them hidden in the Stark crypts as Winterfell was burned by invaders.