Counterintelligence: Using the Bolton Machine Against Itself

A Riddle from the The Winds of Winter

Sometimes we need to start at the end in order to understand the beginning…

In the Theon’s sample chapter from The Winds of Winter, we are led to believe that Jon’s letter arrived and informed Stannis of Arnolf Karstark’s planned betrayal. The first move we see Stannis take is to confront Karstark’s maester:

“Maester Tybald,” announced the knight of the moths.

The maester sank to his knees. He was red-haired and round-shouldered, with close-set eyes that kept flicking toward Theon hanging on the wall. “Your Grace. How may I be of service?”

Stannis did not reply at once. He studied the man before him, his brow furrowed. “Get up.” The maester rose. “You are maester at the Dreadfort. How is it you are here with us?”

So I’d like to pose you one riddle before I get on with this essay…

How in seven hells did Stannis know that Tybald was the maester at the Dreadfort?

This is one of several essays in a series discussing Stannis’s campaign for the north:

  1. Stannis: Less Draconian, More Utilitarian
  2. Counterintelligence: Using the Bolton Machine Against Itself
  3. Stannis and the Covert King
  4. A Strategy Emerges: Stannis and the Discourses on Livy

Initial Reports from Mors Umber and Arnolf Karstark

There are some early signs that Stannis knows a lot more than he tells Jon.

“The Bastard of Bolton has gone south, taking Hother Umber with him. On that Mors Umber and Arnolf Karstark are agreed. That can only mean a strike at Moat Cailin, to open the way for his lord father to return to the north.”

There is a lot of latent information here. Lets begin by considering the logistics of this intelligence:

  • How does Karstark know about Ramsay and Hother’s movements?
    Quite obviously because he was at the Dreadfort and participated in their plans.

  • How is Karstark’s information being conveyed to Stannis?
    As noted by Stannis in Jon I, ADWD, Arnolf has been responding to Stannis’s messages via raven.

  • What is the maximum intelligence Karstark could give to Stannis?

    1. Hother and Ramsay move south (verified)
    2. Roose Bolton returning north
    3. A wedding to be conducted, Ramsay and Arya Stark, in order to lay claim to Winterfell.
    4. The Dreadfort is vulnerable (verified, albeit false intelligence)
    5. That Hother Umber is not to be trusted
    6. That Theon Greyjoy is alive, currently posing as the thought-dead Reek.

  • How does Mors Umber know about Ramsay and Hother’s movements?
    This is tricky, since Mors Umber was not at the Dreadfort. There are two principal options:
    Scouts – Mors may be using scouts to watch the movements of forces around the Dreadfort. Thus this may be how he knows about troop movements.
    Messages – Mors and Hother may be communicating more advanced information in some fashion, such as ravens, couriers, etc.

    The key point here is that Mors has intelligence on Ramsay and Hother, to an uncertain extent. He may only know about troop movements, or he may more know more. And even if he only knows about troop movements, would this mean he also knows about the movements of the Karstarks? That they were also present at the Dreadfort?

  • How is Mors Umber’s information being conveyed to Stannis?
    It is all but made explicit that Justin Massey and Richard Horpe were Stannis’s envoys to Mors Umber. They return with any intelligence that he shares.

  • What is the maximum intelligence Mors could give to Stannis?
    This all depends on how much he receives from Hother as well, but is largely similar to Arnolf’s list:

    1. Hother and Ramsay move south (verified)
    2. Roose Bolton returning north
    3. A wedding to be conducted, Ramsay and Arya Stark, in order to lay claim to Winterfell.
    4. That Arnolf Karstark is not to be trusted.
    5. That Theon Greyjoy is alive, currently posing as the thought-dead Reek.
    6. If Mors is using scouts, surely he knows about the movements of the Karstarks as well.

So there are two massive reveals here:

There is evidence of at least some form of intelligence exchange between Mors and Hother, which is eventually reaching Stannis.

Stannis could already know about Arya’s forthcoming wedding, before he’s even left Castle Black.
NOTE: Stannis likely already knows about the wedding via another source in any case.

The Seeds of Distrust

Returning to Stannis’s statement, he implied that the Arnolf and Mors didn’t agree on everything when he says “On that Mors Umber and Arnolf Karstark are agreed.”

Why is this interesting? Because if you look at the lists of things they could tell Stannis, the only real difference is what they could say about each other. There is also the obvious alternate choice either lord could also make… to not tell Stannis something. Given these possibilities to explain the ‘disagreement’ in the reports, this means that either Mors or Arnolf (or both) engaged in either of the following:

  • They shared more of their knowledge than the other. For example, one talked about the wedding and the other did not. This could be because one of them willfully withheld data, or because they didn’t have it (if Mors is using scouts).
  • They pointed the finger at the other. Mors could either say that he’s observed Karstarks moving around the Dreadfort or that Hother has told him so. Likewise, there is the remote possibility that Arnolf attempted to present himself as a ‘secret agent’ and told Stannis about Hother’s allegiance to Ramsay.

We can’t know for sure, after all Stannis does so like to ‘break the seals himself’.

In any case, the differences in their shared knowledge is concerning, and suggest that one is less trustworthy, less loyal… perhaps even disloyal. Perhaps this is why one of the first things Stannis asks Jon in Jon IV, ADWD is whether or not Mors can be trusted:

“Can this man Mors be trusted?” asked Stannis.

The Case Against Arnolf Karstark

There are a number of factors that help bring Arnolf’s eventual betrayal to light as early as Jon IV, ADWD.

Direct Allegation from Mors

As noted, Mors could have directly pointed a finger at Karstark. This could be true with or without messages, as the same scouts who watched Hother and Ramsay depart could surely see Arnolf linger or depart as well.

Uncles and Dead Children

One of the more interesting things that stands out on a re-read of Jon IV, ADWD is that Jon and Godry Farring provide all of the data and questions necessary for Stannis to begin questioning Arnolf’s loyalty.

“A fine plan if what you want is every hand in the north raised against you. Half is more than none. The Umbers have no love for the Boltons. If Whoresbane has joined the Bastard, it can only be because the Lannisters hold the Greatjon captive.”

“That is his pretext, not his reason,” declared Ser Godry.

“If the nephew dies in chains, these uncles can claim his lands and lordship for themselves.” “The Greatjon has sons and daughters both. In the north the children of a man’s body still come before his uncles, ser.”

“Unless they die. Dead children come last everywhere.”

While ostensibly about the motives of the Umbers, isn’t this perfectly suited for explaining Arnolf and Cregan Karstark’s reasons and pretexts. They declared for Stannis hoping Harry Karstark would be executed. Then they conspired to conduct a forced marriage between Cregan and Alys and later discard her too.

I would agree that it’s just a fun irony for the re-reader, if it wasn’t for some other key elements in the same chapter.

Knowledge of the Family Tree

“Arnolf Karstark is an old man with a crooked back, and even in his youth he was never the fighter Lord Rickard was. The rigors of the campaign may well kill him.”

“He has heirs,” Stannis snapped. “Two sons, six grandsons, some daughters. If Robert had fathered trueborn sons, many who are dead might still be living.”

Stannis clearly knows the Karstark lineage. This means that he’s in a spot to see how Arnolf and his family can benefit from betraying him. At the very least, he can see that Alys Karstark is a ‘loose end’, something that needs to be addressed and in doing so benefit his campaign.

Reflecting Upon Jon’s Counsel

One has to wonder what Stannis will think when he reflects on Jon sage advice.

Will he quickly realize that Arnolf conspicuously failed to inform him of all the very real logistical hurdles involved? The swiftness with which Moat Cailin could be taken? These doubts could gnaw at him almost immediately after the end of Jon IV, ADWD.

But what about after he takes Deepwood Motte. Recall that Stannis questioned Sybelle Glover, and most likely that’s how he learned of the wedding in Winterfell, that’s when he learned just how quickly Moat Cailin was taken.

At this point it should have become obvious just how right Jon was. Coupled with Arnolf’s failure to disclose these perils, it would be entirely logical to consider Arnolf a betrayer.

There’s even evidence to suggest that Stannis doesn’t trust (or at the very least want) Arnolf around him when the Karstarks join his forces at the crofter’s village:

Over his armor of plate and mail Ser Richard wore his quilted doublet, blazoned with three death’s-head moths on a field of ash and bone. King Stannis walked beside him. Behind them, struggling to keep pace, Arnolf Karstark came hobbling, leaning on his blackthorn cane.

Arnolf Karstark made to hobble after him, but Ser Richard Horpe took him by the arm and turned him toward the longhall.

So Stannis clearly doesn’t care to have Arnolf linger near him. The first excerpt could be dismissed as mere impatience or obliviousness. However the second passage shows that Stannis has given Horpe orders to keep Karstark away from him.

But why?

Why would Stannis offend the very first Northern lord who declared for him; the northern lord who ostensibly has shown the most loyalty to his cause?

How Stannis Benefits from Betrayal

So… back to that original riddle: How did Stannis know that Arnolf’s maester was assigned to the Dreadfort?

It was in Jon’s letter

Sure, Jon could have conceivably known about the maester and written it in his letter.

But Alys Karstark fled from Karhold. So unless Arnolf returned to Karhold with the maester, trotted him around Alys and spilled the beans on his plans; how would Alys know enough about the maester or the details of the plot to share with Jon?

So I think it’s unlikely that Stannis learned about the maester from the letter. It requires a lot of chained events, but additionally requires Scooby Doo levels of villainous stupidity.

What’s more plausible is that Stannis was informed via Mors Umber.

I believe that Mors is the one who most prominently informed Stannis about the plot. I admit this will seem speculative, but I find it grounded in inferences drawn from the Theon sample chapter from The Winds of Winter.

I explain the reasons for this choice in a few moments.

The mysteries behind “Did Stannis know?” and “How did he know?” are best resolved by looking at context.

Stannis confronts the maester first

In the Theon I sample chapter, Stannis quite clearly verifies that the maester sent a message to Winterfell containing directions on how to find him:

“I know all about your vows. What I want to know is what was in the letter that you sent to Winterfell. Did you perchance tell Lord Bolton where to find us?”

“S-sire.” Round-shouldered Tybald drew himself up proudly…

“…I will ask you once again. What was in the message you sent to Winterfell?”

The maester quivered. “A m-map, Your Grace.”

The king leaned back in his chair. “Get him out of here,” he commanded. “Leave the ravens.” A vein was throbbing in his neck. “Confine this grey wretch to one of the huts until I decide what is to be done with him.”

Notice how swiftly the conversation ends, and how Stannis specifically wanted to verify that directions had been sent. Not only that but Stannis goes directly for that point, he knows precisely what to ask. He doesn’t even care to know what else the maester might have told the Boltons.

Let me repeat that: He wanted to *verify* that directions had been sent; he *expected* it.

Then Stannis confronts the Karstarks

Now compare that to Stannis’s treatment of Arnolf and his kin:

“Only mine.” King Stannis sat in it. “It is no Iron Throne, but here and now it suits.” A dozen men had filed through the tower door, led by the knight of the moths and the big man in the silvered breastplate. “You are dead men, understand that,” the king went on. “Only the manner of your dying remains to be determined. You would be well advised not to waste my time with denials. Confess, and you shall have the same swift end that the Young Wolf gave Lord Rickard. Lie, and you will burn. Choose.”

Stannis doesn’t even want to talk to them. He doesn’t banter with them to try and draw out information: they don’t have any information he wants.

He doesn’t voice his accusations.

He doesn’t give Arnolf the opportunity to plead his case.

He doesn’t even refer to the letter from Jon.

So how does this benefit Stannis?

Well I’ll put it to you like this:

The last time Stannis marched to seize an ‘impregnable’ castle he didn’t go without a plan.

“I do not require your understanding. Only your service. Ser Cortnay will be dead within the day. Melisandre has seen it in the flames of the future. His death and the manner of it. He will not die in knightly combat, needless to say.”

In fact, he didn’t leave home without a plan:

“Her flames do not lie. She saw Renly’s doom as well. On Dragonstone she saw it, and told Selyse. Lord Velaryon and your friend Salladhor Saan would have had me sail against Joffrey, but Melisandre told me that if I went to Storm’s End, I would win the best part of my brother’s power, and she was right.”

So we see that Stannis doesn’t just head out to capture the greatest castle in the region with naught but his wits.

NOTE: The remainder of this post presumes that you accept the idea that Stannis is planning to fight at the crofter’s village.

This leaves you, the reader, with a choice. Either:

  • When Stannis didn’t have an established way to draw enemies to his location. He arrived at the village and hoped that they would somehow find and attack him, abandoning the benefits of their fortifications at Winterfell.
  • Stannis had a plan, one that included both providing the enemy a means to get to him and a motive to abandon the castle.

One of the chief benefits is that Stannis could pick any defensible location, and the maester would provide the directions to the Boltons.

If Stannis knew the whole time, why wouldn’t he just confront Arnolf?

  • Well first of all, by allowing Arnolf’s maester to send the messages, he ensures that Bolton continues to believe his intelligence has not been compromised.
  • Second, by keeping Arnolf close and complacent, he renders it easier to neutralize him.


Thus if you were to go with what’s consistent regarding Stannis’s character, one would expect that he had a plan for bringing the fight to him.

Specifically this means that despite a lack of explicit evidence, it makes compelling sense that Stannis knew about Arnolf’s deception very early into his campaign, perhaps before he left Castle Black. Put simply:

Stannis knew about the Karstark plot against him and used to as a part of his strategy.

Maester Tybald was used to provide Bolton the means of locating Stannis.

To assume that events conspired to work out for Stannis requires the assumption that he didn’t do his homework before starting his war. He is nothing if not calculated.

Final Thoughts

If Jon’s letter wasn’t the reason Stannis found out, then why did he only react once he had the letter?

It’s a clever bit of misdirection that man George RR Martin pulled.

It wasn’t the arrival of the letter that triggered his seizure of the Karstarks.

It was the recovery of Arya and the knowledge that directions had been sent to Winterfell (which is why Stannis sees the maester first). At that point, the maester and the Karstarks had served their purpose.

Could this be one of the reasons that Stannis ‘stopped’ at the village? To wait for the maester to contact Winterfell?

Yes. I do believe it’s one of them (alongside waiting for the rescue of Arya).

It’s almost certainly the reason Stannis seemed so ‘listless’… because he needed to wait.

It’s why he was so covert with the ice hole digging, everyone thinks its just from fishing.

It’s also why they sit and starve for so long. Stannis needs to wait until the Karstarks are desperate/overconfident enough to send the birds.

Is this kind of secrecy on Stannis’s part foreshadowed or acknowledged at *all*?


The door opened. Beyond, the world was white. The knight of the three moths entered, his legs caked with snow. He stomped his feet to knock it off and said, “Your Grace, the Karstarks are taken. A few of them resisted, and died for it. Most were too confused, and yielded quietly. We have herded them all into the longhall and confined them there.”

“Well done.”

“They say they did not know. The ones we’ve questioned.”

“They would.”

“We might question them more sharply… ”

“No. I believe them. Karstark could never have hoped to keep his treachery a secret if he shared his plans with every baseborn manjack in his service. Some drunken spearman would have let it slip one night whilst laying with a whore. They did not need to know. They are Karhold men. When the moment came they would have obeyed their lords, as they had done all their lives.”

“As you say, Sire.”

The nature of Stannis’s disclosure regarding obedience is uncharacteristic in its verbosity. It has the ring of deeper relevance to it.

Stannis seems to be stating that even he needs to keep secrets from his own men, but that when called upon they will act because they are loyal to their lords who have been fair with their men.

Paired with Horpe’s flat “As you say, Sire”, the subtext here implies that Horpe has been called upon to act on some of Stannis’s secrets and he too fulfilled them out of allegiance and duty.

And again…

It is additionally indicated when Bolton first tells his guests about Stannis’s march towards Winterfell:

As the Lord of the Dreadfort slipped out, attended by the three maesters, other lords and captains rose to follow. Hother Umber, the gaunt old man called Whoresbane, went grim-faced and scowling.

Hother already knew Mors wasn’t publicly allied with him, so his face surely isn’t because Umbers are allied to different causes: he’s known that for weeks at least.

It’s not because he knows Arnolf is secretly allied with the Boltons and plans on betraying Stannis. If he cared about that in the first place he would have tried to do something to warn Mors and/or Stannis… which brings me to the real reason.

The real reason Hother is so stricken is because he *did* tell Mors and by extension Stannis and yet Arnolf is joining them anyways.

1 thought on “Counterintelligence: Using the Bolton Machine Against Itself

  1. Pingback: Quora

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s