Mance Rayder is the king of the wildlings, who live north of the Wall around the Seven Kingdoms. Mance and his people are preparing to attack the Seven Kingdoms.
Jon Snow — the illegitimate son of Eddard Stark, who was the former lord of Winterfell — travels through the north with a group of wildlings who have taken him in. He was forced to kill his own commander, Qhorin Halfhand, in order to get the wildlings to trust him. Jon intends to gather information about the wildlings before returning to the Wall to inform the Night's Watch of their activities. Jon joins Mance's host and meets Mance himself, who is less frightening than the legends about him imply.
Jon leaves the wildlings and helps defend Castle Black against a wildling attack. His wildling girlfriend Ygritte is killed in the attack. After defending the Wall against another wildling attack, he is made commander of the Night's Watch. Later, he is demoted and thrown into a prison cell before being sent out past the Wall on a mission to kill Mance.
Later, King Stannis' troops march to the Wall and defeat the wilding host led by Mance. King Stannis offers Jon the lordship of Winterfell. Jon is officially elected Lord Commander of the Night's Watch, thus excluding him from inheriting Winterfell.
Jaime Lannister, the brother lover of Queen Regent Cersei Lannister, is a war captive of the Tully family. Catelyn Stark, the widow of Eddard Stark and daughter of Lord Hoster Tully, breaks Jaime out of jail at the castle of Riverrun. Catelyn plans to have her knight Brienne return Jaime to his sister, Cersei, in return for Catelyn's two captive daughters, Arya and Sansa. Catelyn's brother, Edmure, does not like her plan, so he sends out men to attack Brienne and bring Jaime back to Riverrun.
Arya Stark travels away from the castle of Harrenhal with her friends Gendry and Hot Pie. She and Gendry meet a bard named Tom Sevenstrings and his friends. The children travel with the bard to an inn where Arya meets a man who recognizes her as one of the heirs of Winterfell. Tom and his company capture her and Gendry. He decides to take them to Lord Beric Donadrrion, a man loyal to the Starks, in order to receive a ransom. After she is at Beric's home, Arya meets Sandor Clegane, who is captured by Beric. Clegane defeats Beric in single combat and is free to leave. Clegane kidnaps Arya. She kills a man called The Tickler, who was known for torturing people to death. Then she escapes from Clegane and finds passage on a Braavosi ship.
At Riverrun, Robb Stark meets with his mother, Catelyn, and introduces her to his new wife, Jeyne Westerling. Robb's choice of wife has decreased the strength of his army because the powerful Freys only supported Robb when they believed he would follow through on his promise to marry a Frey girl.
After the battle at King's Landing, Tyrion Lannister is wounded. Tyrion is trying to find his place in the new power structure. Tyrion's father, Tywin Lannister, replaces him as the Hand of the King. Tyrion has lost almost all of the troops who supported him before the battle.
Tyrion is given a job in King's Landing as the Master of Coin, which simply means that he will have to find money for the king to spend. Lord Tywin decides that Cersei should marry young Willas Tyrell, the crippled heir to an important piece of land. Tywin is also determined to have Tyrion marry Sansa Stark.
Sansa is invited to visit Margaery Tyrell, the new fiancée of King Joffrey. Margaery and her grandmother Lady Olenna are kind to Sansa. They want to take Sansa to their estate at Highgarden so she can marry Margaery's brother Willas.
In King's Landing, Sansa is wed to Tyrion, giving the Lannisters a claim to the lands of Winterfell. Someone poisons King Joffrey on his wedding day. Joffrey dies, and Cersei has Tyrion arrested on suspicion of murder. Sansa is taken out of the city by Lord Baelish, also known as "Littlefinger."
Jaime enters King's Landing. Lord Tywin disowns Jaime when he will not obey him and marry Margaery Tyrell. Tyrion's champion is defeated in a trial by combat. Tyrion is thrown in prison, awaiting execution for King Joffrey's death.
Daenerys Targaryen, Joffrey's sister, sails toward the Seven Kingdoms with her Dothraki followers and her three young dragons. Her right-hand man, Ser Jorah Mormont, confesses that he loves her.
Daenerys purchases thousands of eunuch slave warriors to help her retake the Seven Kingdoms. She has the eunuchs lead a rebellion against their own city of Astapor, freeing all the slaves. Tens of thousands of freed slaves from Astapor follow Daenerys as she marches to Yunkai and defeats the city.
Daenerys' company of tens of thousands reaches the city of Meereen. She discovers that for months a legendary knight named Ser Barristan Selmy has been guarding her. She also learns that Ser Jorah Mormont betrayed her during their early acquaintance by selling secrets about her to King Robert.
Jaime and Brienne are taken captive by a group of mercenaries called the Brave Companions. The Brave Companions cut off Jaime's hand and give him and Brienne to Roose Bolton at Harrenhal. Eventually Jaime rescues Brienne from Vargo Hoat, who made her fight a bear in a pit.
Jamie frees Tyrion from prison. Tyrion finds his girlfriend Shae, who lied and testified against him at his trial. He strangles her to death with a necklace, then kills his father, Tywin, with a crossbow.
At Riverrun, Catelyn's father, Lord Hoster Tully, dies. Catelyn's brother Edmure becomes the new lord of Riverrun. Robb learns that Winterfell has been burned down. At Edmure's wedding to Roslin Frey, the Freys betray the Stark troops and attack them. Robb is murdered, as is Catelyn.
At Dreadfort, Sansa is acting the part of Littlefinger's illegitimate daughter when her own aunt, Lysa Arryn, comes to marry Littlefinger. When Lysa learns that Sansa is truly her niece, she decides that Sansa should marry her son Robert, though he is only 8, and Sansa is married already.
At the Eyrie, Sansa learns that Littlefinger has a romantic interest in her. Lysa tries to kill her when she sees Littlefinger kiss Sansa. Littlefinger saves Sansa and pushes Lysa to her death.
In the epilogue, Catelyn is resurrected from the dead, and she orders a Frey descendant to be hanged.