A Ghost in Winterfell

Winterfell by Lino Drieghe © Fantasy Flight Games
As discussed in Radio Westeros Episode 18

 

In Theon Greyjoy’s chapter “A Ghost in Winterfell” in ADwD, we find one of the great minor mysteries of the ASoIaF fandom.  It begins with a series of deaths. A Ryswell man at arms, Aenys Frey’s old squire, and a Flint crossbowman. Theon does not believe any of the excuses made for these deaths, thinking to himself each time that foul play was a more likely answer.

When Ramsay Bolton’s own man Yellow Dick is found dead, with his actual dick cut off and stuffed into his mouth, there can be no doubt that a bad actor is responsible for these deaths. Things are starting to go badly wrong for Roose Bolton, the snow is making the men anxious, the Freys and Manderlys are fighting and the stables have collapsed. It is during this chaos and friction that Theon flees a meal in the great hall and has a curious encounter.

When Theon steps outside he has a moment of peace in the falling snow that is strangely evocative of Sansa’s “snow castle” scene from the Eyrie. Then he walks on and meets a man:

Farther on, he came upon a man striding in the opposite direction, a hooded cloak flapping behind him. When they found themselves face-to-face their eyes met briefly. The man put a hand on his dagger. “Theon Turncloak. Theon Kinslayer.”

“I’m not. I never … I was ironborn.”

“False is all you were. How is it you still breathe?”

“The gods are not done with me,” Theon answered, wondering if this could be the killer, the night walker who had stuffed Yellow Dick’s cock into his mouth and pushed Roger Ryswell’s groom off the battlements. Oddly, he was not afraid. He pulled the glove from his left hand. “Lord Ramsay is not done with me.”

The man looked, and laughed. “I leave you to him, then.”

That short passage has inspired the eternal question — who is the hooded man? Many identity theories have been floated about the fandom, from Benjen Stark to Hal Mollen to Brynden “Blackfish” Tully. And while there is some value in ideas like Robett Glover, the brother of the lord of Deepwood Motte who was last seen trying to raise troops in White Harbor, and an idea which proposes the hooded man is simply in Theon’s imagination, our call is someone much closer to home, someone who would have very good reason to be in Winterfell, who may be much changed from the last time Theon saw him, and who Theon actually thinks is dead, making him a perfect candidate for an alternate interpretation of the chapter title. Harwin, son of Hullen, is both a possible alternate as “A Ghost in Winterfell” and a strong candidate for being the hooded man Theon encounters.

Probably the first question to address is why Harwin? That answer lies with Lady Stoneheart. Starting in ASoS, in the Merrett Frey epilogue, it’s made clear that she and the BwB are searching for her daughter Arya in the Riverlands. Remember that, besides Sandor Clegane, the BwB are the last people to knowingly see Arya Stark alive. The search continues into AFfC, when the BwB question Brienne about Arya, and we also learn that they have been gathering orphans in the Riverlands and housing them at the Inn at the Crossroads. It’s been speculated this is most likely an effort to discover Arya among the orphaned and displaced young people of the Riverlands.

Lady Stoneheart and the BwB would know that Arya was last seen with Sandor Clegane prior to the Red Wedding, but they will have also heard the news that some weeks after the Red Wedding, Roose Bolton set out for the north with a young woman in a closed carriage, reputed to be Arya Stark being taken home to marry his son Ramsay. In that light, it makes perfect sense that Lady Stoneheart would send a spy to Winterfell to see if this was truly her daughter, and if so to effect her rescue. Who better to send than the one member of the BwB who not only knew Arya well, but grew up in Winterfell and was an expert horseman?

Harwin is last mentioned by name in AFfC when Thoros tells Brienne that Harwin begged him to raise Catelyn Stark when they discovered her in the river three days after her death. And while there is a “young northman” in the cave when Brienne is brought before Lady Stoneheart, we think there’s a chance that young man is Hal Mollen, Catelyn’s sworn sword who was last seen heading into the Neck with Ned’s bones in ACoK.

The young man in the Brienne scene, whose voice is “frosted with the accents of the north”, is never identified by name. There has been opportunity for Hal to have rejoined his lady’s service, since Lady Stoneheart is noted to have been in Hag’s Mire and the Neck recently. In addition, it’s interesting that this young man says to Brienne:

“Can it be that my lady has forgotten that you once swore her your service?”

Hal Mollen witnessed Brienne’s oath to Lady Catelyn in ACoK, and since this comment seems to come from personal knowledge rather than something Lady Stoneheart said, we give pretty good odds to this man being Hal Mollen, and to Harwin having been sent on a mission sometime earlier, possibly during that trip into the Neck. But the theory doesn’t hinge upon that being true, since by most reckonings nearly two months pass between Brienne’s trial and the hooded man sighting. Which seems more than enough time for an expert horseman who knows the lay of the land well to make his way to Winterfell.

So having established motive and opportunity for Harwin, let’s look at the scene itself. It’s not immediately clear if Theon recognises the man. He wonders if this is the killer who has claimed four victims to that point, and thinks of him only as “the man.” But it’s very obvious the hooded man knows him. He clearly recognises Theon, and calls him “Turncloak” and “Kinslayer” — epithets that one could certainly expect from someone who lived in the Winterfell household. Theon denies being a kinslayer as usual, since he knows he didn’t kill Bran and Rickon. And as usual this is met with disgust and  the hooded man says “False is all you were” and wonders “How is it you still breathe?” Now, we know that Theon’s torture by Ramsay was known in the Riverlands,  Roose had made no secret of it. The man doesn’t seem surprised, and even laughs, when he sees Theon’s maimed hand, and seems to take some pleasure in leaving Theon to Ramsay.

These reactions seem to be all in keeping with what one would expect from Harwin. But what about Theon? It’s possible he wouldn’t recognise Harwin whom he hasn’t seen in several years, especially when we recall that Harwin was much changed and Arya barely recognised him when she first met the BwB. But it’s also possible that he does recognise him. And that is the really intriguing possibility because while Theon hasn’t seen Harwin in years, he does think of him.

In ADwD, in the chapter following his encounter with the hooded man, Theon is thinking about the ghosts that inhabit Winterfell and we get this:

That was long ago, though. They were all dead now. Jory, old Ser Rodrik, Lord Eddard, Harwin and Hullen, Cayn and Desmond and Fat Tom, Alyn with his dreams of knighthood, Mikken who had given him his first real sword. Even Old Nan, like as not.

So it seems that Theon assumes that all of the men who went with Ned perished in King’s Landing, but Harwin is the only person in his thoughts that’s actually alive. We think we’re alerted to this mistake on Theon’s part for a reason. Consider that while the chapter title “A Ghost in Winterfell” clearly applies to Theon, it’s made very plain in his thoughts that he thinks of himself as only one of very many ghosts: “there are ghosts in winterfell, and I am one of them.” Now if we consider that these chapter titles sometimes do have alternate meanings, and imagine what Theon would think if he saw Harwin, who he thinks is dead… the alternate meaning for this chapter title becomes very clear. The hooded man would literally appear to be a ghost to Theon, who is already spending a lot of time musing about ghosts and wondering about the voice he is hearing from the weirwood tree. In that light some lines that come immediately after the encounter with the hooded man make a lot of sense. First he thinks “He was trapped here, with the ghosts” and then “Leave Winterfell to me and the ghosts” and finally, when surprised in the godswood by Abel’s women:

“The ghosts,” he blurted. “They whisper to me. They … they know my name.”

So the tree has been speaking to him, but we think he has another ghost in mind as well. Imagine Theon, already haunted by the ghosts he created and hearing a voice speaking to him from the weirwood tree, seeing someone he has thought dead for these last two years. Might be good cause for him to think the ghosts are talking to him. And then in Theon’s TWoW spoiler chapter, when Theon is recalling how he tried to explain his story to Asha when they met in the snow, he thinks “He told her how he bedded down with Ramsay’s bitches, warned her that Winterfell was full of ghosts.”

Warning his sister “that Winterfell was full of ghosts” is very interesting in light of this theory that Theon had an encounter with a man he would consider a ghost. Let’s now provide some clarity on the other options that have been identified. One good question is why rule out other candidates like Robett Glover, Hal Mollen, the Blackfish and Benjen Stark? The obvious answer is that not only would Theon have recognised all of those men, having seen most of them recently during the fighting in TWot5K, but that he has never been shown to think any of them are dead, as he has Harwin, and so his reaction to seeing them might have been much different. One other thing about Harwin as an option that we think is important is that neither Roose, nor any of the lords or soldiers who are with him would be expected to recognise him, as they would Glover, Tully or Benjen Stark and even Hal Mollen who was Robb’s standard bearer when the northmen left Winterfell in AGoT. Harwin could thus easily blend in with the grooms, servants and freeriders that Winterfell is noted to be teeming with.

Consider also Theon’s reaction, wondering “if this could be the killer, the night walker who had stuffed Yellow Dick’s cock into his mouth and pushed Roger Ryswell’s groom off the battlements.” There is an almost supernatural feeling to this, and the fact that he feels no fear is appropriate given the fact that he seems so comfortable with his “ghosts.”

Speaking of Theon’s suspicion that the hooded man could be the killer, we think it unlikely. After Theon’s various interactions with Abel’s women it seems pretty clear that they were responsible for the Ryswell man at arms, Ser Aenys Frey’s squire, the Flint crossbowman and Yellow Dick. Since there isn’t anything we know of in the political situation at Winterfell to connect those four men, we surmise that they had some knowledge that made them dangerous. Since all were found outside, we further assume it was something they saw that marked them for death.

But what about Little Walder? Rowan denies that his death was down to Abel’s washerwomen, implying they are responsible for the others. We can’t rule them out because the body was discovered in the vicinity of the tower Abel met Theon in the night of the murder, but we definitely think there could be a second murderer in Winterfell who killed Little Walder. We find it highly suspicious that Big Walder is noted to be spattered in blood, when it’s just been stated that Little Walder’s blood was frozen, due to the body being found in a snowdrift. So while we can’t rule out one of Abel’s women or the hooded man as the killer,  we do think that Big Walder, who was so quick to implicate a knight from White Harbor, is definitely a strong suspect in that murder.

In conclusion,  Harwin as the hooded man makes thematic sense and is well supported by the text, but it appears that it’s probably best to look elsewhere for the perpetrators of the mysterious deaths that take place in Winterfell as tensions rise to the boiling point and Roose commands a snowy march to meet Stannis Baratheon in battle.

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Brown Ben Plumm: The Boldest Sellsword of Them All

Brown Ben Plumm by The Mico
Spoilers for The Winds of Winter here!

Ben Plumm, currently the commander of the Second Sons, claims to be the veteran of a hundred battles and a former bodyguard for the Pahl family of Meereen. It was he who suggested infiltrating Meereen through her sewer network, a plan allegedly inspired by his one time escape from the sword of Meereenese champion Oznak zo Pahl.

Plumm also claims to be part Braavosi, part Summer Islander, part Ibbenese, part Qohorik, part Dothraki, part Dornish, and part Westerosi. He’s also been heard to claim that he has a “drop of dragon blood” as well. This odd claim seems to have been inspired by the fact that Queen Daenerys’ dragons have a certain fondness for him.

“…as Brown Ben was leaving, Viserion spread his pale white wings and flapped lazily at his head. One of the wings buffeted the sellsword in his face. The white dragon landed awkwardly with one foot on the man’s head and one on his shoulder, shrieked, and flew off again. “He likes you, Ben” said Dany.

“And well he might.” Brown Ben laughed. “I have me a drop of the dragon blood myself, you know.”

“You?” Dany was startled. Plumm was a creature of the free companies, an amiable mongrel. He had a broad brown face with a broken nose and a head of nappy grey hair, and his Dothraki mother had bequeathed him large, dark, almond-shaped eyes. He claimed to be part Braavosi, part Summer Islander, part Ibbenese, part Qohorik, part Dothraki, part Dornish, and part Westerosi, but this was the first she had heard of Targaryen blood. She gave him a searching look and said, “How could that be?”

“Well,” said Brown Ben, “there was some old Plumm in the Sunset Kingdoms who wed a dragon princess. My grandmama told me the tale. He lived in King Aegon’s day.”

“Which King Aegon?” Dany asked. “Five Aegons have ruled in Westeros.” Her brother’s son would have been the sixth, but the Usurper’s men had dashed his head against a wall.

“Five, were there? Well, that’s a confusion. I could not give you a number, my queen. This old Plumm was a lord, though, must have been a famous fellow in his day, the talk of all the land. The thing was, begging your royal pardon, he had himself a cock six foot long.”

Where does this claim originate? Tyrion Lannister believed that Brown Ben Plumm was telling the truth, and may be possessed of not one, but two, drops of dragon blood. In fact, he offered this clever assessment not long after meeting Plumm:

“You’re less purple and more brown than the Plumms at home, but unless your name’s a lie, you’re a westerman, by blood if not by birth. House Plumm is sworn to Casterly Rock, and as it happens I know a bit of its history. Your branch sprouted from a stone spit across the narrow sea, no doubt. A younger son of Viserys Plumm, I’d wager. The queen’s dragons were fond of you, were they not?”

That seemed to amuse the sellsword. “Who told you that?”

“No one. Most of the stories you hear about dragons are fodder for fools. Talking dragons, dragons hoarding gold and gems, dragons with four legs and bellies big as elephants, dragons riddling with sphinxes … nonsense, all of it. But there are truths in the old books as well. Not only do I know that the queen’s dragons took to you, but I know why.”

“My mother said my father had a drop of dragon blood.”

“Two drops. That, or a cock six feet long. You know that tale? I do.”

The history Tyrion speaks of is this: During the reign of the fourth Aegon, his beautiful cousin Elaena married the elderly Lord Ossifer Plumm at the king’s request. Although Lord Ossifer died on their wedding night, reportedly after beholding his young wife’s naked beauty, the princess conceived a child, who was born some time afterwards and named Viserys, possibly  after her uncle, the former king. The timing of the young Plumm’s birth led to the legendary tale of Ossifer Plumm’s six foot long member, as clearly many speculated that the babe was born too late to have been conceived while old Ossifer still walked the earth. Many in the Westerlands believe that Elaena’s child was in fact fathered by none other than her cousin, King Aegon IV.

As Tyrion noted, it must have been a younger son of this Lord Viserys who made his way across the Narrow Sea, there to begin the mongrelized cadet branch of House Plumm from which sprang Ben of the Second Sons. And given the timing, we have to wonder of this young Plumm might have left Westeros to support his Blackfyre cousins. One other interesting thing of note is that while it’s mentioned repeatedly that the dragons are fond of Ben, and Daenerys thinks wistfully that “even the dragons had been fond of old Brown Ben, who liked to boast that he had a drop of dragon blood himself” it is her white dragon Viserion who is shown on page being friendly with Plumm. Viserion was hatched from a cream and gold egg. A close look at Westerosi history reveals that Elaena Targaryen’s most cherished possession was a dragon egg of those same colors, a curious fact that can only make us wonder at the mysterious origins of Daenerys Targaryen’s three dragon eggs. Could the egg that hatched Viserion have once belonged to another Targaryen princess, who became Brown Ben Plumm’s great great great grandmother?

This sellsword of uncertain birth and checkered past grew to be one of Queen Daenerys’ most trusted captains. Companies of sellswords that can be bought to solidify defenses or further a military cause are common in Essos, and are usually comprised of soldiers from various origins. Men from Westeros have been known to join such companies, most often while in exile as in case of Aegor Rivers, the founder of the Golden Company, or Prince Oberyn Martell who famously served with the Second Sons. And while the slave armies of Essos have little choice in their part, sellswords will go to war for anyone who can satisfy their lust for gold. However, men who would fight and kill for gold are susceptible to one glaring weakness — loyalty. As Kevan Lannister said “a man who fights for coin is loyal only to his purse.”

Now, with just a quick glance at recent history, we can see this treachery evident in sellsword companies, even including those renowned for their loyalty. We have the Brave Companions, never well known for their honour, brought to Westeros at the behest of Tywin Lannister. All the gold in Casterly Rock couldn’t stop Vargo Hoat from turning on his employer, and switching his allegiance to House Bolton when the tide of the WoT5K was turning in Robb Stark’s favour. Then there is the case of the Golden Company, who have a long reputation of being the most loyal company in the world. The Golden Company had never broken a contract in their history until the return of their former leader Jon Connington in the company of a young man claiming to be Aegon VI Targaryen led them to break a contract with Myr and sail for Westeros. While rumours as to what led to this are swirling in Essos, Illyrio Mopatis told Tyrion  “some contracts are writ in ink, and some in blood” which supports the idea that young “Aegon” is actually a Blackfyre descendant of some sort, since the Golden Company was founded by Aegor Rivers in the wake of the rebellion of his half brother Daemon Blackfyre. Then we have the case of the Stormcrows who turned cloak against the Yunkai’i and now fight for Daenerys, under the leadership of Daario Naharis. The Second Sons also deserted Yunkai in favour of Daenerys when she planned a nighttime attack upon them after giving their leader Mero a gift of wine. There was a general rout during which their captain fled, and the Second Sons elected Brown Ben Plumm as their new commander and turned their cloaks.

However, the plot thickens here, as Ben Plumm and the Second Sons turned their cloaks once more, going over to the Yunkai’i when the Queen confessed that she could not control her dragons and thus would not be loosing them in the coming battle. At the end of ADwD the Second Sons were part of the forces besieging Meereen. But we learned from a Tyrion spoiler chapter from The Winds of Winter that when the tide of battle seemed to be turning in favor of Meereen, the Second Sons turned once more, with Ben declaring that they had been for Daenerys all along:

“We have always been the queen’s men,” announced Brown Ben Plumm. “Rejoining the Yunkai’i was just a plot.”

With this history, especially on the part on the Second Sons, one could be forgiven for wondering if it’s only a matter of time before the sellsword who clearly wants nothing more than to be on the winning side, turns his cloak again. And that same passage from The Winds of Winter gives us a subtle hint that perhaps Ben is destined to do exactly that.

As Tyrion observes Ben entering the Second Sons’ camp, we get a description:

Brown Ben Plumm wore plate and mail over boiled leather. The silk cloak flowing from his shoulders was his only concession to vanity: it rippled when he moved, the color changing from pale violet to deep purple

It’s interesting to consider the description of the cloak “changing from pale violet to deep purple” as possible foreshadowing of a turned-cloak in light of the fact that while Daenerys’ eyes are described on numerous occasions as violet, “Young Griff”’s eyes are described by Tyrion as dark purple. And when one considers the thematic significance of an offshoot of House Plumm supporting an offshoot of House Blackfyre things get even more interesting.

First, let’s recall that Viserys Plumm is rumoured to be the son of Aegon IV and Elaena Targaryen, while Daemon Blackfyre is the acknowledged son of Aegon IV and Daena Targaryen, Elaena’s elder sister. Daenerys comes from the line of Daeron II, Aegon IV’s legitimate son with his wife Naerys. Now if we assume as many do that “Young Griff” is in reality “Aegon Blackfyre” (*for a discussion of the possibilities see here) the possibility of his long lost cousin Ben Plumm becoming his supporter seems quite strong, especially if it were a position that might bring Plumm a good chance at collecting not only a reward from Aegon, but the promise he received from Tyrion upon the latter’s acceptance into the Second Sons:

Brown Ben’s note was the last. That one had been inscribed upon a sheepskin scroll. One hundred thousand golden dragons, fifty hides of fertile land, a castle, and a lordship.

We’ve just outlined that for sellswords, gold is a principal motivator. In Ben Plumm’s case, gold seems to come second only to saving his own skin, as he told Daenerys:

Silver’s sweet and gold’s our mother, but once you’re dead they’re worth less than that last shit you take as you lie dying. I told you once, there are old sellswords and there are bold sellswords, but there are no old bold sellswords.

In other words, a hundred thousand gold dragons would be worth nothing to Ben Plumm if he found himself in mortal danger. With that in mind, let’s consider what it might take for Ben Plumm to abandon the dragon queen once again.

Obviously in order to collect of Tyrion’s note, Ben and Tyrion both have to make it safely to Westeros, and there will have to be a regime change in King’s Landing. This is a compelling reason for Ben to have switched his allegiance back to Daenerys as the tide began to turn against the Yunkai’i. At that point in time, Dany might have seemed his best bet for getting both himself and Tyrion safely to Westeros. But what might happen if news reaches Meereen that another Targaryen has invaded Westeros and looks to be toppling the Lannisters from their perch in King’s Landing? This could be very interesting news indeed for someone who values personal survival only slightly more than cold hard cash. Because Ben Plumm just might be a position to deliver the Targaryen prince the very currency he needs to secure his claim to the Iron Throne, while securing his own future and collecting on his promise from Tyrion Lannister in the bargain.

Remember how Dany’s dragons are noted on numerous occasions to be “fond” of Ben? And that the white dragon, Viserion, was even shown to perch on his shoulder? What if Ben were to somehow abscond with that very dragon that we earlier speculated may have been hatched from an egg that once belonged to his ancestor, Elaena Targaryen? How could such a thing happen, and what might the outcome be?

Basically we see two possibilities for the how. First, Ben might decide not to wait for Dany’s eventual return and could simply kidnap Tyrion and the white dragon and make for Westeros with the intention of presenting Aegon with the dragon he needs in exchange for rich rewards and assurances of Tyrion’s ability to make good on his debt. But since we think that not only is the plot best served by Ben being reunited with Dany in Meereen, but also that Tyrion has some significant role to play there, it seems the second option fits best. That is that, if Valyrian blood is needed in order to be a dragon rider as seems to be indicated by GRRM’s comments here, Ben could be asked to bond with the dragon by the queen, since if she were to be actively seeking to use her force multipliers she would need riders for Viserion and Rhaegal. Once bonded and in possession of the dragon, he could break for Westeros for all the same reasons noted above, with the biggest difference being that his betrayal would be so much worse in this case and could even count as the “treason for gold” the Undying Ones warned Daenerys of in Qarth.

However it happens, there’s a lot of thematic sense in Ben Plumm turning his cloak once more in favor of Aegon Targaryen. Not only might it get a dragon into the hands of Dany’s rival, but it would put Ben in a position to collect his IOU from Tyrion. It could reunite the offspring of two of the Maids in the Tower in a neat twist that would be thematically fitting, and possibly fulfill one of the prophecies that have haunted Daenerys since Qarth. The textual hints are all evident, culminating in that one description from The Winds of Winter of Ben’s cloak turning “from pale violet to deep purple.” In which case, we suggest that Old Ben Plumm may turn out to be the boldest sellsword of them all.

Written with yolkboy, and featured in part on Radio Westeros Episode 15: The Battle of Fire