Subverting Betrayal


“You need not trust a man to use him.” Else how could I make use of all of you?

The implications of the Night Lamp theory make it clear: Stannis expected to be attacked at the crofter’s village.

This requires two things:

  • The Boltons would need a compelling reason to abandon Winterfell and attack Stannis. As I noted in the implications section of the Night Lamp theory, Stannis himself declared that all Bolton had to do was wait for Stannis to starve, Bolton did not need to actually attack Stannis at all. In acknowledging this fact, Stannis implies that he has a method to compel attack (otherwise why would he have been stupid enough to march towards an impregnable castle like Winterfell, or stop indefinitely at a village in the middle of nowhere). Further, I’ve shown how this compelling factor was most certainly the abduction of Arya from Winterfell.
  • Secondly, in order to ‘know’ that an enemy would attack on a terrain of his choosing, the Boltons must know how to find him. This necessitates that the enemy has guidance of some sort. A Dance with Dragons and the Theon sample from The Winds of Winter make it clear that the Boltons have a map to Stannis’s location.

There’s just one problem: Stannis had no apparent plan for disclosing his location to the Boltons.

The disclosure of his location in the books is the result of the Karstarks acting in the secret interests of the Boltons, plotting to betray Stannis at some key moment. Their maester secretly dispatches a letter to Winterfell with the aforementioned map.

It’s curious that Stannis’s entire strategy at the crofter’s village hinges on the Bolton’s ability to find him, yet he had no plans to actually give them directions.

Do I believe in happy accidents like this? Particularly ones that seem so crucial to Stannis’s plans?


I strongly believe that Stannis knew about the Karstark betrayal well in advance, and used it to his advantage.

Given the confidence that the battle will be at the village and an overwhelming victory for Stannis (unless something disastrous happens), only one possibility can be inferred:

Stannis knew about the Karstark’s plotted betrayal.

He allowed it to continue because he could take advantage of it.

He finally intervened after verification that his location was disclosed to the Boltons.

Proving these points are the central goals of this essay.


  1. Leading Questions. The odd behaviors that suggest Stannis was up to something throughout A Dance with Dragons.
  2. Evidence of Treachery. The various factors that support Stannis’s knowledge of the Karstark betrayal.
  3. Serendipity of Betrayal. When did Stannis learn about the plot: making sense of the timeline. The additional benefits of the Karstark plot.
  4. Summary. A quick outline of this essay’s main points. Read this if you want a “TL;DR” of this essay.

*   *   *


Stannis NarrowThere are a number of conspicuous behaviors on Stannis’s part throughout A Dance with Dragons and the samples of The Winds of Winter, all of which suggest something is afoot.

The Needed Map

In the Theon’s sample chapter from The Winds of Winter, we are led to believe that Jon’s letter is what 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?”

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

Although there may be perfectly rational explanations for this, there are further conspicuous elements to his interrogation of the maester. I apologize for the length of the citation, but it lends important context (the bolded sections are what really matter):

“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.

“The rules of my order forbid me to divulge the contents of Lord Arnolf’s letters.”

“Your vows are stronger than your bladder, it would seem.”

“Your Grace must understand — ”

“Must I?” The king shrugged. “If you say so. You are a man of learning, after all. I had a maester on Dragonstone who was almost a father to me. I have great respect for your order and its vows. Ser Clayton does not share my feelings, though. He learned all he knows in the wynds of Flea Bottom. Were I to put you in his charge, he might strangle you with your own chain or scoop your eye out with a spoon.”

“Only the one, Your Grace,” volunteered the balding knight, him of the winged pig. “I’d leave t’other.”

“How many eyes does a maester need to read a letter?” asked Stannis. “One should suffice, I’d think. I would not wish to leave you unable to fulfill your duties to your lord. Roose Bolton’s men may well be on their way to attack us even now, however, so you must understand if I skimp on certain courtesies. 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.”

Isn’t it interesting that Stannis was essentially asking if directions were given from the outset? He doesn’t care at all if details about the disposition of his army was disclosed; a fact that would normally be of massive importance to a person expecting an attack!

*   *   *

Order of Operations

Further, isn’t it interesting that Stannis seized the maester before seizing the Karstarks. It strongly suggests that Stannis wanted to confirm certain details before acting on the Karstarks.

When you couple these observations with the fact that Stannis needed to provide the Boltons directions to his camp, it seems all but certain that Stannis knew about the betrayal plot prior to Jon’s letter.

Indeed, Stannis was clearly relying on the Karstarks to provide the Boltons with directions to his camp.

<table of contents>

*   *   *


painted-table-concept-artThere are a number of factors that help bring Arnolf’s eventual betrayal to light as early as Jon IV, ADWD.

Direct Allegation

Someone could have directly pointed a finger at Karstark and outed him for a turncloak The most likely way this could have happened is if Hother Umber somehow told Mors Umber (or Stannis directly somehow), and thereby Stannis was told

*   *   *

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? Stannis notably 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.

*   *   *

A Rude Dismissal

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?

Further, why has he seemingly avoided all private sessions with his lords, when he had no such anti-social behavior at Deepwood?

Fundamentally, what’s changed?

I believe there are only a few good answers to that last question:

  • The presence of the Karstarks.
  • The situation at the crofter’s village, perhaps the desperation and isolation felt by Stannis.

However, the Theon sample from The Winds of Winter indicate that Stannis was far from desparate or isolated. In truth, one gets the feeling he was entirely concealing his true nature from his men.

*   *   *

Protecting the Deception

There is a hugely suspicion exchange between Richard Horpe and Justin Massey that seems to support the idea that Stannis knows about the betrayal.

Justin Massey engages in a spirited argument with the Karstarks, ridiculing the idea that Stannis can defeat the Boltons. I won’t cite the entire conversation, but here are the interesting bits:

“And die, and die, and die.” Ser Justin rolled his eyes. “Gods be good, are all you Karstarks mad?” “Gods?” said Richard Horpe. “You forget yourself, Justin. We have but one god here. Speak not of demons in this company. Only the Lord of Light can save us now. Wouldn’t you agree?”

He put his hand upon the hilt of his sword, as if for emphasis, but his eyes never left the face of Justin Massey.

Beneath that gaze, Ser Justin wilted.

Although this was already a suspicious dialogue, the Theon sample from The Winds of Winter confirms my suspicions: Richard Horpe almost certainly knows more of Stannis’s strategies than anyone else in his army. This is why he steers Karstark away from following Stannis after the execution.

This belief is founded on the observation that Horpe is not a devout follower of R’hllor (stated explicitly in the TWOW sample), nor is he a rash man (measured is a word that is regularly used to describe him).

Thus when he fingers his sword while challenging Massey and falsely invoking a passion in R’hllor, I strongly believe the implication here is “Shut the hell up, you’re threatening a vital interest by challenging the Karstarks”.

*   *   *

Necessary Secrecy

There is also an interesting exchange between Richard Horpe and Stannis in Theon I – ADWD:

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.

Once again I suspect this helps implicate Horpe as one of the only people to know some of Stannis’s secrets.

*   *   *


  • The text clearly indicates that Stannis was intentionally concealing his true plans from not just the Karstarks, but from everyone.

  • The reason for doing so was to prevent certain elements of his strategies from being revealed to his own men.

  • The only natural reason to do so would be if he suspected betrayal.

  • Given his knowledge of the Karstark family tree, Jon’s sage counsel, a possible allegation from the Umbers and Stannis’s own dismissive regard for Arnolf Karstark, it’s clear that he almost certainly suspects the Karstarks of betrayal.

Yet he allows Arnolf’s treachery to continue. Why?

<table of contents>

*   *   *



Before addressing why Stannis allowed the treachery, I want to first identify the when. When Stannis realized that the Karstarks were plotting against him?

The Timing of Jon’s Letter

The text appears to suggest that Stannis only learned about the Kastark betrayal when Tycho Nestoris arrived with Jon’s letter.

However this doesn’t make sense. Given what I’ve established in the Night’s Lamp theory, Stannis had to know about the betrayal earlier than that, it was the only way for the Boltons to know how to reach him.

And as this essay is showing, the Karstark betrayal is the only conceivable method for such purposes.

Therefore, the idea that Jon’s letter is what told Stannis is a red herring.

Further, while Jon could have conceivably known about the maester and written it in his letter, it doesn’t make sense of some particulars:

  • Alys Karstark fled from Karhold.
  • 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?

Collectively, its all but impossible that Stannis only learned about the treachery from Jon’s letter. It requires Scooby Doo levels of villainous stupidity, and doesn’t reconcile with the needs of Stannis’s strategies.

*   *   *

A Likely Deduction

While it’s possible that Mors and/or Hother somehow communicated with Stannis and directly told him about Arnolf’s treachery, that is an irrelevant detail. It’s quite likely that Stannis would have been able to deduce it on his own.

All you have to do is refer to the earlier sections and look at the vast evidence that Stannis has all of the knowledge needed to make the deduction: he would only need to connect the dots.

And as shown, we know that he must have known at some point prior to leaving Deepwood Motte. This generally leaves two options for when Stannis figured it out:

  • Before leaving Castle Black for Deepwood Motte
  • Before leaving Deepwood Motte

I’m inclined to believe he figured it out before leaving Castle Black, but it’s largely unimportant when it happened.

*   *   *

The Benefits of Treachery

There are two important factors that contribute to the notion of allowing the Karstark betrayal.

First, by allowing the betrayal Stannis is able to deceive Arnolf and Roose Bolton into believing that their communications are truly in secret. Had Stannis captured Karstark and the maester early, any attempt at ‘forged’ communications might have been detected via code or secret signal. Further, had he attempted any sort of direct goad on Bolton, it would have backfired since Roose Bolton is a greatly cautious man.

Stannis’s location had to be disclosed to the Boltons in a manner that did not arouse caution or suspicion. The betrayal was ideal for this purpose.

The second reason for allowing the betrayal to proceed is because it caused complacency in the Karstarks. This is especially notable since they were so easy for Stannis and his men to take into custody once the order was given.

Had he declared their betrayal earlier they might have fled to Roose Bolton and removed one valuable asset from Stannis’s bag of tricks. In other words, eliminating a known traitor only serves to deprive Stannis of a potential asset: despite the fact that Karstark is ‘compromised’, his secret alliance can be used against the Boltons.

<table of contents>

*   *   *


In short, the picture that emerges is that at some point Stannis learned about the Karstark plot. However, rather than confront this scheme, he managed to subvert it and use it for his own purposes.

The evidence in the previous two essays in this series strongly make the following points:

  • Stannis planned to fight at the crofter’s village, necessitating the use of both a compelling lure and directions to his location.

  • The kidnapping of Arya Stark was the compelling lure.

  • The lack of direct evidence of a disclosure of directions on Stannis’s behalf means that some other method must have been employed.

This allows me to make the following arguments in this essay:

    • Given that we know directions were provided via the Karstark plot and that they were a necessary component of the strategy used by Stannis, Stannis must have therefore known about it.

Supporting this, there is further evidence to suggest that Stannis had all of the knowledge necessary to deduce the scheme against him.

  • Given that the directions being sent to Bolton almost certainly favor Stannis’s strategy it’s all but confirmed that this was intentional. Particularly, because given the Night Lamp strategy, Stannis appears to be prepared to use the map against his enemy.

<table of contents>

*   *   *


Combining the three essays thus far, we see that Stannis has employed a rather cunning strategy against the Boltons.

Between the Night Lamp, the kidnapping of Arya and the reversal of the Karstark plot, Stannis has certainly engineered a win at the crofter’s village.

However, Bolton is an extremely cautious man. Stannis could not have expected to decisively win against the Boltons in a single battle: Bolton would not likely throw the entirety of his army at Stannis, instead holing up at Winterfell.

Thus, we have learned how Stannis plans to win the battle, but not the war. This latter mystery is the subject of the remainder of the Mannifesto.

<table of contents>

<the mannifesto>

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3 thoughts on “Subverting Betrayal

  1. sweg_pirate

    I noticed a mistake in the parts where you say it was the stealing of fake arya that compelled bolton to attack. Because bolton already gives the freys and manderlys orders to attack stannis, while theon is still in winterfell.

    1. cantuse Post author

      What I mean to say is that stealing Arya was intended to force the Boltons to attack. You are right that in actuality it was Bolton’s orders after the death of Little Walder, but that was not the original plan Stannis had in mind.

  2. Kev

    Isnt that a gamble? Would Stanis stake everything on one Card? I mean, could he realy have that much faith in Mance to succeed? I guess it is possible, that Mel did see a victory in her flames but i never had the Impression that Melissandre was very sure Stannis would return (other than that AA could not fail)


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