The Fellowship of the King

NOTE: I’m currently revising this essay… it will look wonky for a day or two.

NOTE: This essay is part of a major revision to Volume III of the Mannifesto. More details can be found here.


This essay is the second in a series which take a critical look at Theon’s role in The Winds of Winter.

In the first essay (Release the Kraken), I established a hearty argument that Theon would be used in a ploy to capture the Dreadfort. If you have not read that essay, I highly recommend reading it before continuing.

With that out of the way, we are at major crossroads.

How would Theon’s ‘secret mission’ be executed?

Who else is present for this bold move?

I’ll put my answers bluntly:

Stannis will disguise Theon as Arnolf Karstark, and vice versa.

Arnolf will be sacrificed/executed in Theon’s place.

Meanwhile, Theon (disguised as Arnolf), the ironborn and a few others will be dispatched to the Dreadfort, to enter the castle in disguise.

Once inside, they will surreptitiously open the postern gate allowing other northerners to enter the castle and take it by storm.

The answers stem from a close reading of Stannis’s words and actions, as well as a few minor assumptions. In particular:

Stannis’s orders and behavior suggest that he had a covert plan that involved some manner of deception meant for the Karstarks.

There are some additional military benefits of capturing the Dreadfort.


  1. Members of the Fellowship.
  2. A False Trail.
  3. Addressing the Karstarks.
  4. The Secret Mission.
  5. Net Benefits.
  6. Seizing the Dreadfort.

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dreadfortIt will be extremely helpful to first briefly recap what details resulted from the heavy analysis put forth in the essay Release the Kraken. Put simply, the analysis leads to the following overall conclusion:

Theon and the ironborn will conduct a secret mission to capture the Dreadfort.

There’s a few major problems with this:

Even with the best genius of all time, It’s difficult to believe that the Dreadfort could be taken by seven men alone—one of them decrepit. The mission will need further assistance.

Plus, while Theon and the ironborn may indeed capture the Dreadfort… we have no indications of ‘what happens next’.

I can begin addressing these concerns by pointing out the following:

Theon and the ironborn will not be traveling alone.

This is based off of the needs identified in both points: Theon’s merry band of ironmen needs some aid.

So.. who else is traveling with Theon?

The rest of this section will discuss all of the almost guaranteed participants as well as those deemed less-concrete-and-therefore-optional. You are encouraged to consider them for yourself and identify which combinations make the most sense to you.

*   *   *

ser_clayton_suggs_by_cookies_n_markers-d67m0zcClayton Suggs and Maester Tybald

These two will travel to the Dreadfort with Theon. They essentially exist in a paired relationship: Suggs is the torturer and enforcer that keeps Tybald in fear. This allows them to contain the maesters protests. And the reason Suggs has been assigned this role is because they need maester Tybald to act as part of Stannis’s campaign. There are certain other benefits:

  • Not only does Tybald make sense because the Dreadfort is his home, but he can help establish the cover story that “Arnolf” is weak from the campaign and that the maester is treating his ailments.

Alternatively, Stannis can play up the “discovery” of Cregan Karstark’s betrayal, in an attempt to beguile his way into the Dreadfort.

  • Further, for any plot to lure the Boltons from Winterfell to work, there must be a means to send ravens once the Dreadfort has been taken. Unless Stannis captures a castle with a rookery, he only has the two ravens from Tybald which both fly to Winterfell.
  • Lastly upon taking the Dreadfort, maester Tybald will be bound by oath to serve the castle’s new master, perhaps Theon himself. In any case, the new maester will be someone loyal to Stannis.

This is why Stannis ensures maester Tybald’s subservience to Suggs so cleverly in Theon’s sample chapter. The king also verifies that Tybald takes his maester oaths very seriously.

You can read a detailed treatment of the master-slave relationship between Suggs and Tybald in When Pigs Fly.

*   *   *

20130822_160510Mors Crowfood and his Green Boys

Along the way to the Dreadfort, Theon and his company will pass close to Winterfell. I strongly believe that Mors Crowfood and his boys will join the mission at this time.

Wait, what? Why wouldn’t the Umber ‘men’ stay and fight the Bolton forces?

First off, the Umber men are in truth ‘green boys’. They would be completely useless against the full armies of the Freys and Manderlys when they emerge to march toward Stannis. It makes no sense for Mors to throw his men away on such endeavors, nor to simply fade into the scenery.

I believe we have a clue of Mors’s involvement in the text:

Theon tittered. “Mors took the green boys and Hother took the greybeards. All the real men went with the Greatjon and died at the Red Wedding. Is that what you wanted to know, Your Grace?”

King Stannis ignored the jibe. “Boys,” was all he said, disgusted. “Boys will not hold Lord Bolton long.”


This interests me because Stannis expresses little belief that Roose Bolton will actually attempt to join any march on Stannis:

“Bolton has blundered,” the king declared. “All he had to do was sit inside his castle whilst we starved. Instead he has sent some portion of his strength forth to give us battle. His knights will be horsed, ours must fight afoot. His men will be well nourished, ours go into battle with empty bellies. It makes no matter. Ser Stupid, Lord Too-Fat, the Bastard, let them come. We hold the ground, and that I mean to turn to our advantage.”

Notice there is no mention of Roose Bolton. Nor has Theon given any indication that Roose has any plans to leave.

So what then will Crowfood and his boys ‘hold’?

Surely no one could expect such a limp force to hold Bolton for any amount of time, let alone ‘not long’.

In essence, I’m saying Stannis’s musings on Crowfood’s men betrays a secret use for them, to hold something that they could hold for a short while even in the face of Roose Bolton’s aggressions.

And yet, once again—what could they hold? The best answer to this is the Dreadfort. Because of the multiplicative benefits of being on the defensive side of a siege, the green boys will be substantially more effect than they would anywhere else. Refer to the essay Deception in Siegecraft for a discussion on numerical strength and castle defense.

In any case, I have not established a convincing ‘why’. It’s all so very specious. There is an answer to that question, an answer that reveals something so brilliant I don’t want to discuss it here.

*   *   *

Artos Flint and Big Bucket Wull (optionally)

maxresdefaultBoth men seem wholly committed to wrecking the Boltons. This is especially true of Wull, a man who has openly declared that he hopes to die killing Bolton men.

Flint’s men (and perhaps Flint himself) are also of interest because they were Stannis’s advance force at Deepwood Motte: it was Flint’s men that climbed the castle walls and attempted to open the gates.

Further, we know that both of these men were waiting to speak to Stannis throughout Theon’s sample chapter. In combination with the observations above, it would seem that they had something extremely important to tell Stannis.

Stannis surmises that they are waiting to demand Theon’s head. But what if it’s simpler than that?

What if Wull and Flint only want to tell Stannis that Theon did not kill the Stark children?

After all, the mountain clans are somewhat close, and we know that at least one Liddle knows that Bran Stark is alive. Furthermore, it would seem that there are widespread rumors in the hills that Ramsay was searching for the boys:

The Liddle took out a knife and whittled at a stick. “When there was a Stark in Winterfell, a maiden girl could walk the kingsroad in her name-day gown and still go unmolested, and travelers could find fire, bread, and salt at many an inn and holdfast. But the nights are colder now, and doors are closed. There’s squids in the wolfswood, and flayed men ride the kingsroad asking after strangers.”

The Reeds exchanged a look. “Flayed men?” said Jojen.

“The Bastard’s boys, aye. He was dead, but now he’s not. And paying good silver for wolfskins, a man hears, and maybe gold for word of certain other walking dead.” He looked at Bran when he said that, and at Summer stretched out beside him.

The way this is phrased suggests that the reward for the Stark children may be something that is known by many. Further, the fact that this Liddle now knows about Bran, there’s nothing preventing such knowledge from percolating throughout the mountain clans.

In any case, I only present Wull and Flint as possible members of the fellowship.

*   *   *

The Karstark grandsons (optionally)

House KarstarkTwo of Arthor’s sons were grievously wounded when Stannis had them arrested. By maester Tybald’s own words, he is with the Karstarks to ‘tend to their wounded’.

Thus it is possible that these wounded sons (and perhaps others) are sent with Theon, Tybald and the others to further ensure Arthor’s compliance, knowing that they will surely die if Arthor chooses to betray Stannis.

At the very least, it would make Arthor hesitant to participate in any attack on the Dreadfort if he knew his sons were held captive inside.

*   *   *

deepwoodearlyimageBenjicot Branch

One of Sybelle Glover’s scouts, this minor character was brought up a few times in A Dance with Dragons:

  • He is an experienced tracker and guide, capable of swiftly escorting people across the wilderness:

The army covered twenty-two miles the first day, by the reckoning of the guides Lady Sybelle had given them, trackers and hunters sworn to Deepwood with clan names like Forrester and Woods, Branch and Bole.

  • He felled a deer that made for one of Stannis and Asha’s meals during their march:

They supped that night on a venison stew made from a scrawny hart that a scout called Benjicot Branch had brought down.

This of course suggests he is good with a bow and foraging on the move.

  • He is also the person who claims that the crofter’s village is only three days from Winterfell:

Branch swears we are only three days from Winterfell,” Ser Richard Horpe told the king that night after the cold count.

  • This establishes him as perhaps the best suited to guide the ironborn mission to Winterfell and Mors Umber, a necessary stop on their way to the Dreadfort.

Thus while minor, he fills a useful spot in the mission’s necessary skill-sets.

*   *   *

Acherontia_lachesisRichard Horpe (optional)

Horpe is perhaps Stannis’s closest companion during the march to Winterfell. As I’ve established in other essays, Horpe was entrusted with information regarding the Karstark betrayal well in advance of anyone else.

Thus if Stannis wanted someone he could trust with a secret agenda on the mission it would Horpe. You could consider him an enforcer of sorts.

These facts said, Horpe remains Stannis’s closest knight, so the king may instead not want to send him on a mission that may already have enough manpower.

You can read my about Horpe’s special relationship with Stannis in the essay The Smiler and The Slayer.

*   *   *

A Point about the Ironborn

A person may criticize that the ironborn would be readily recognized. However, the text pointedly indicates otherwise:

They emerged from the storm like a troop of wraiths, big men on small horses, made even bigger by the bulky furs they wore. Swords rode on their hips, singing their soft steel song as they rattled in their scabbards. Asha saw a battle-axe strapped to one man’s saddle, a warhammer on another’s back. Shields they bore as well, but so obscured by snow and ice that the arms upon them could not be read.

The rider vaulted from his saddle, pulled back his hood, and bowed. So thick was his beard, and so crusted with ice, that for a moment Asha did not know him.

Thus the ironborn could certainly blend in with maester Tybald, Theon and any others. This would be especially true if they dressed up in the garb of the newly dead Karstark men.

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The ironborn mission to the Dreadfort would largely consist of three efforts:

  1. Quickly riding to Winterfell and then on to the Dreadfort.
  2. Gaining entry to the castle via guile or stealth.
  3. Providing access to the remainder of men accompanying the mission.

Although I am by no means a prophet, I believe we can provide reasonable speculations on these tasks.

The Journey

First of all, there is the logistical challenge… can a small force travel fast enough to the Dreadfort and enact the ploy Stannis has theoretically designed?

I believe this is largely addressed in a lengthy rumination on such matters, when Jon Snow considers the task of a ranging to Hardhome:

Enough to get us there, perhaps. It was the journey back that concerned Jon Snow. Coming home, they would be slowed by thousands of free folk, many sick and starved. A river of humanity moving slower than a river of ice. That would leave them vulnerable. Dead things in the woods. Dead things in the water. “How many men are enough?” he asked Leathers. “A hundred? Two hundred? Five hundred? A thousand?” Should I take more men, or fewer? A smaller ranging would reach Hardhome sooner … but what good were swords without food? Mother Mole and her people were already at the point of eating their own dead. To feed them, he would need to bring carts and wagons, and draft animals to haul them—horses, oxen, dogs. Instead of flying through the wood, they would be condemned to crawl.

It would def

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comp_blizzardWhat makes all of the above truly appealing are the net benefits, specifically how these hypotheses will appear to the other members of Stannis’s army, including the Karstarks.

*   *   *

After Stannis dispatches Massey, Tycho, Alysane and “Arya” to the Wall with extra horses, the blinded Karstarks could only deduce that the extra horses carried the same six ironborn that arrived with Tycho. Knowing that the Karstarks were unaware of Jeyne’s presence, Alysane Mormont’s absence might be seen as an indication that it was Asha that left with Massey (and not Jeyne Poole).

This is striking because it creates a striking gap between reality and whatever intelligence Roose Bolton could possibly glean from Arthor:

  • The Karstark/Karhold men would not know about the secret mission to the Dreadfort, because it departed while all of the Karstarks were arrested.
  • Theon’s staged execution (using Arnolf) could be conducted entirely while the Karstarks are held captive as well – thus preventing the Karhold men from knowing the truth – they would think that Arnolf is still alive.
  • Arthor Karstark may know about his sons being held hostage in exchange for his loyalty.

Possessing all of the details, Stannis can arrange a cover for “Arnolf” to leave for the Dreadfort. A likely ‘cover story’ for this sudden departure could be attributed to Arnolf’s inability to endure the ‘rigors of the campaign’ (something Jon told Stannis about in JON IV – ADWD). If relevant, Stannis could also have claimed that Arnolf left with his two injured sons in order to bring them to a safe haven where maester Tybald could treat their wounds.

Essentially, the Karstark arrest provides a gaping window of opportunity: Stannis is free to launch any covert mission he desires and thereafter conceal it from the very men he is likely to send into Winterfell.

*   *   *

Umber will not fight Umber

By moving Crowfood’s men to the Dreadfort Stannis would once more find tremendous benefit in something Jon Snow told him:

Stannis ground his teeth. “He informs me that Umber will not fight Umber, for any cause.”

Jon was not surprised. “If it comes to swords, see where Hother’s banner flies and put Mors on the other end of the line.”

This brings me to an important point. Suppose that Roose Bolton marches his army to the Dreadfort, with Hother Umber in tow.

What would Hother Umber do if he saw that the Dreadfort was occupied by Crowfood’s men?

Would he continue to aid Bolton?

*   *   *

Putting it Together

So let me point something out. If I’m right about these things, then Bolton would march toward the Dreadfort with Arthor and Hother Umber in tow.

If Arthor Karstark knows that his sons’ lives depend on his loyalty to Stannis, would he betray Bolton?

If Hother was in a situation where Bolton demanded him to attack Crowfood (or allow him to attack), would Hother betray Roose?

It would seem natural for both to betray Roose.

That’s a massive change in forces; a loss of nearly nine hundred men for Bolton, and an additional nine hundred for Stannis!

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d50-asoiaf-074-franz_miklis-the_dreadfortI need a break from writing this essay (but I will come back to finish the job). I want to take a moment and share how I think capturing the Dreadfort will go:

  1. Theon, Tybald and Ironborn arrive at the Dreadfort and request entry. Suggs and the injured Karstark sons are possible here as well. Theon will perhaps play at being injured, so as to keep his features more concealed. Mors and the other northmen will lay in wait.
  2. At night, or some other time, Theon and the ironborn will move to open the postern gate and allow the northmen inside.
  3. Collectively the men will defeat the occupants and seize the castle.

Assuming that Theon takes the castle quickly, he would then need to control the narrative that reaches the Boltons in Winterfell. He wouldn’t want to risk betraying that Stannis survives, that Mors and/or Karstark men are involved, etc. These would threaten the chance for those groups to betray Bolton later in battle.

The most likely possibility is that Theon could pretend that the Dreadfort was overthrown by wildlings; they are perhaps the only group that Theon could attribute the coup to without arousing suspicion.

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5 thoughts on “The Fellowship of the King

  1. ecr56

    It’s not the first time I read a post of yours in which you say that Stannis might make Theon assume Arnolf Karstark’s identity, but it’s the first time it dawns on me how horrible that would be for Theon. The poor guy has been through some horrible things and one of the most important steps in his recovery was remembering his identity, his name. And now this king would ask him to pretend to be someone else.

    At least, if you’re right, his prize would be to proudly announce his identity to his fellow Ironborn. As always, great post.

  2. Donald Collora


    Firstly, I hope your health is improving!
    Secondly, thank you for all the amazing essays!

    Finalyl, This would mean Thoen captures the Dreadfort and Winterfell and eventually becomes the ruler of the Iron Islands. It will become common knowledge he didn’t kill the Stark boys. My question is how do you see Theon remembered in Westeros history? Would he be a legend or a cautionary tale?

  3. Sven (@MegaBaumTV)

    Im not entirely sure this is how it will be going down. Maybe this is Stannis’ plan, but tbh: I cant see how it would be ending well if they sent Theon back to the Dreadfort to deceive Bolton loyalists, not with all the trauma he had to suffer.

    1. cantuse Post author

      I’m actually working on an updated piece/version of this essay. It’s mostly the same, but rather than insist that Theon has to go to the Dreadfort, I focus on the fact that Theon is easily either #1 or #2 on the list of Pink Letter authors. The rest is really just speculation on the ‘how’ regarding Theon authoring the letter.

      I expect a lot of what I’m saying will make more sense in the revised piece.


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