The Winterfell Huis Clos


Where does power truly lie? Varys gave an answer with his allegory of the shadow on the Wall. Evidently the figureheads of power are often manipulated by characters in the shadows. For us readers, the game seems to consist in the recognition of those characters.

Bear with me for a moment for expressing seemingly absurd ideas, which might have little to do with GRRM's books.

I am tempted to reject the dichotomy between pawns and players. More precisely, the identification of the true players might not be possible in any conventional sense.

According to one vision that took hold of me for one moment, every manipulator is himself the tool of another manipulator, part of an infinite chain of power whose extremities are beyond our horizon. And our horizon does not lie very far. Melisandre is convinced that the ruby worn by Mance makes him her slave; ironically, she doesn't realize the implication of the larger ruby she wears at all times.

The quest for the ultimate source of power might be unending, not unlike the quest for the identification of the ultimate constituents (or laws...) of matter in physics. The final explanation might seem within reach at times, just at the limit of human comprehension, just a step away in the mist. But, for all our efforts, the mist never truly dissipates. It just gives us glimpses of more mysteries that we couldn't consider before.

That would put us seekers, readers in need of understanding, in a perpetual state of frustration. I have no idea whether GRRM really wish to put us in such a position. But, certainly, many of us have the impression that what we see is merely a scene for puppets. We see only the shadows of the puppeteers, and the curtain that hides them might never be lifted, except perhaps to let us glimpse more shadows.

According to an even weirder vision that popped into my mind, the true powers might not be what we would call individuals, or even gods, but rather transpersonal forces impossible to truly describe using rational language, leaving only the possibility to employ metaphors based on notions like colors or animals, the very emblems used by characters in the story.

One of the things that make GRRM's world so intriguing and lovable is that the Seven Kingdoms seem ruled by an interplay between feudalism and totemism. Indeed, the connection between certain houses and their totemic animal goes far beyond what happened in the real Middle Ages, even leaving aside skinchanging. What role do the animal powers play in the power struggle in Westeros?

Mere sigils? Emblems to differentiate certain human subcultures? Shamanism that does not dare say its name? Fluidity between humanity and certain animal species?

In Winterfell, no more the lair of the wolf, four animals are present. It's convenient and meaningful to see them as two pairs of opposites: Ravens and horses on the one hand, dogs and pigs on the other hand. The latter pair has a wild variant: wolves and boars. These animals, except perhaps the pigs, were regular denizens of Winterfell when the Starks ruled the castle, indeed House Stark had once a maester, a master of horse and a kennelmaster.

These beasts seem substantially related to the people surrounding the enigmatic lord of the Dreadfort and competing for influence over him. We have yet to determine whether Roose will favor his bastard, Lady Dustin, his wife Walda, or the maesters he has summoned.

Our animals of interest here are featured prominently in the Riverlands as well: Strongboar and his Frey relatives for the pigs, the Brackens for the horses, the Blackwoods for the ravens, and the Hound and Nymeria's wolfpack for the dogs. More or less the antagonisms we are going to look at.

  1. The Antipathy between Pigs and Dogs
  2. The Crakehall Freys and Pigs
  3. The Bastard's Girls
  4. The Vanishing Ravens
  5. The Winterfell Meals
  6. The Nature of Ravens
  7. The Winterfell food Chain
  8. The Ryswells and Horses
  9. Horses in Winterfell
  10. The pale Lord and the golden Skull
  11. The Leech Lord

1. The Antipathy between Pigs and Dogs

We are going to assimilate pigs and dogs with their respective wild versions: boars and wolves. In the real world, the difference is merely due to the process of domestication. Let's verify first that such an assimilation is valid in the books.

The association between pigs and boars is explicit in the text. The men of the Watch fear that Borroq would lead a pig army. Strongboar wants to believe that the knight of Sow's Horn is a distant cousin. Indeed, here is a passage I like to quote, since it might be significant of the cultural fluidity in Westeros.
At a place called Sow’s Horn they found a tough old knight named Ser Roger Hogg squatting stubbornly in his towerhouse with six men-at-arms, four crossbowmen, and a score of peasants. Ser Roger was as big and bristly as his name and Ser Kennos suggested that he might be some lost Crakehall, since their sigil was a brindled boar. Strongboar seemed to believe it and spent an earnest hour questioning Ser Roger about his ancestors.
(Jaime III, AFfC)

Let's turn to the canine world. Jon Snow notes that Rattleshirt's dogs have more than bit of wolf in them, noting thus that there is no interspecies barrier. The dogs of the Frozen Shore are compared to direwolves etc. Dogs and a young Ghost compete for food in the Winterfell Great Hall. And for the Freys wolves and dogs are alike, so spoke Rhaegar Frey.
The Young Wolf? He was a vile dog and died like one.
(Davos III, ADwD)

Let's turn to our subject: the antagonism between dogs and pigs. The antipathy between Ghost and Borroq's boar is manifest.
Amongst the riders came one man afoot, with some big beast trotting at his heels. A boar, Jon saw. A monstrous boar. Twice the size of Ghost, the creature was covered with coarse black hair, with tusks as long as a man’s arm. Jon had never seen a boar so huge or ugly. The man beside him was no beauty either; hulking, black-browed, he had a flat nose, heavy jowls dark with stubble, small black close-set eyes.
“Borroq.” Tormund turned his head and spat. “A skinchanger.” It was not a question. Somehow he knew.
Ghost turned his head. The falling snow had masked the boar’s scent, but now the white wolf had the smell. He padded out in front of Jon, his teeth bared in a silent snarl.
“No!” Jon snapped. “Ghost, down. Stay. Stay!”
“Boars and wolves,” said Tormund. “Best keep that beast o’ yours locked up tonight. I’ll see that Borroq does the same with his pig.”
(Jon XII, ADwD)

“Boars and wolves,” said Tormund. The antipathy is all natural and well understood. Indeed we have the precedent of Harma Dogshead.
There was Harma Dogshead, a squat keg of a woman with cheeks like slabs of white meat, who hated dogs and killed one every fortnight to make a fresh head for her banner;
(Jon II, ASoS)
And here are Harma's preferred companions.
Halleck, brother to Harma Dogshead, with her pigs.
(Jon V, ADwD)
Harma's pigs come up two more times. Let's go now south of the Wall.

The nickname Strongboar has been earned by Lyle Crakehall in reason of his strength and of the sigil of his house: a brindled boar. Pigness is very much part of Strongboar's psyche.
“We came on some, the day before last,” said Jaime. Addam Marbrand’s scouts had found them, hanging black-faced beneath a crabapple tree. The corpses had been stripped naked, and each man had a crabapple shoved between his teeth. None bore any wounds; plainly, they had yielded. Strongboar had grown furious at that, vowing bloody vengeance on the heads of any men who would truss up warriors to die like suckling pigs.
(Jaime IV, AFfC)
When Strongboar visits Darry with Jaime, he is honored by his kin the Crakehall Freys, notably Amerei.
“Evil work.” Strongboar filled his cup again. “Lady Mariya, Lady Amerei, your distress has moved me. You have my word, once Riverrun has fallen I shall return to hunt down the Hound and kill him for you. Dogs do not frighten me.”
(Jaime IV, AFfC)
The desire to defeat the Hound is an obsession.
“That was before he died,” said young Ser Arwood Frey. “Death changed him, the smallfolk say. You can kill him, but he won’t stay dead. How do you fight a man like that? And there’s the Hound as well. He slew twenty men at Saltpans.”
Strongboar guffawed. “Twenty fat innkeeps, maybe. Twenty serving men pissing in their breeches. Twenty begging brothers armed with bowls. Not twenty knights. Not me.”
(Jaime IV, AFfC)
The stage is set for a showdown between the Hound and Strongboar.
Strongboar was the next to depart. He wanted to return to Darry as he’d promised and fight the outlaws. “We rode across half the bloody realm and for what? So you could make Edmure Tully piss his breeches? There’s no song in that. I need a fight. I want the Hound, Jaime. Him, or the marcher lord.”
“The Hound’s head is yours if you can take it,” Jaime said, “but Beric Dondarrion is to be captured alive, so he can be brought back to King’s Landing. A thousand people need to see him
die, or else he won’t stay dead.” Strongboar grumbled at that, but finally agreed. The next day he departed with his squire and men-at-arms, plus Beardless Jon Bettley, who had decided that hunting outlaws was preferable to returning to his famously homely wife.
(Jaime VII, AFfC)

Note that Strongboar refers to the Hound as a figurehead, rather than as the person Sandor Clegane. He might end fighting whoever will wear the infamous helm.

The next instance of the antagonism is even clearer and even more symbolic. We had seen it for the wedding of Joffrey and Margaery.
The jousters were a pair of dwarfs. One was mounted on an ugly grey dog, long of leg and heavy of jaw. The other rode an immense spotted sow.
(Tyrion VIII, ASoS)
And we see it again in Volantis.
In the center of the square, under the cracked and headless statue of a dead triarch, a crowd had begun to gather about some dwarfs putting on a show. The little men were done up in wooden armor, miniature knights preparing for a joust. Quentyn saw one mount a dog, as the other hopped onto a pig ... only to slide right off again, to a smattering of laughter.
(The Merchant's Man, ADwD)
And again in the Meereen pits, most solemn of fighting places.
The battle was followed by the day’s first folly, a tilt between a pair of jousting dwarfs, presented by one of the Yunkish lords that Hizdahr had invited to the games. One rode a hound, the other a sow. Their wooden armor had been freshly painted, so one bore the stag of the usurper Robert Baratheon, the other the golden lion of House Lannister.
(Daenerys IX, ADwD)

In the part of the story that interest us, the pigs and dogs seem to have champions who are clearly enemies: The Freys, especially Walda, and Ramsay respectively.

I could not find any reason in the books for the antagonism between the porcine and canine worlds, analogous to the historical enmity between ravens and horses.

2. The Crakehall Freys and Pigs

We have already seen the house that bears the porcine sigil: House Crakehall. Walder Freys' third wife was Crakehall. Hosteen and Merrett were her sons, Walda and Little Walder are Merrett's children.

The link between those Freys and house Crakehall is quite clear. Indeed, here is Little Walder's personal banner.
Little Walder quartered the twin towers of Frey with the brindled boar of his grandmother’s House and the plowman of his mother’s: Crakehall and Darry, respectively.
(Bran II, ACoK)
Moreover, Merrett Frey has squired for Lord Crakehall, as Jaime Lanniser recalls in Darry.
“We were squires together once, at Crakehall.”
(Jaime IV, AFfC)

Walder Freys remembers "fondly" his Crakehall wife, when he speaks of the paternity of the children born of that particular spouse.
Some days I wonder if those two are truly mine. My third wife was a Crakehall, all of the Crakehall women are sluts.
(Catelyn VII, AGoT)

Ramsay has choice adjectives for his goodmother Walda when speaks with Roose, reminding us at the same time of the Crakehall ancestry, and of the large nature of Walda.
“Is this why you left Lady Dustin and your fat pig wife? So you could come down here and tell me to be quiet?”
(Reek III, ADwD)

The association between Freys and pigs comes clearly at the wedding dinner. Here the choice meal of the night.
The Lord of White Harbor had furnished the food and drink, black stout and yellow beer and wines red and gold and purple, brought up from the warm south on fat-bottomed ships and aged in his deep cellars. The wedding guests gorged on cod cakes and winter squash, hills of neeps and great round wheels of cheese, on smoking slabs of mutton and beef ribs charred almost black, and lastly on three great wedding pies, as wide across as wagon wheels, their flaky crusts stuffed to bursting with carrots, onions, turnips, parsnips, mushrooms, and chunks of seasoned pork swimming in a savory brown gravy. Ramsay hacked off slices with his falchion and Wyman Manderly himself served, presenting the first steaming portions to Roose Bolton and his fat Frey wife, the next to Ser Hosteen and Ser Aenys, the sons of Walder Frey. “The best pie you have ever tasted, my lords,” the fat lord declared. “Wash it down with Arbor gold and savor every bite. I know I shall.”
(The Prince of Winterfell, ADwD)

Of course we know that the chunks of seasoned pork are in fact Rhaegar, Symond, and Jared. Only Symond is a Crakehall Frey in the trio.

The association is made again by Manderly.
Ser Hosteen turned on the fat man. “Close enough to drive a lance through my back, aye. Where are my kin, Manderly? Tell me that. Your guests, who brought your son back to you.”
“His bones, you mean.” Manderly speared a chunk of ham with his dagger. “I recall them well. Rhaegar of the round shoulders, with his glib tongue. Bold Ser Jared, so swift to draw his steel. Symond the spymaster, always clinking coins. They brought home Wendel’s bones. It was Tywin Lannister who returned Wylis to me, safe and whole, as he had promised. A man of his word, Lord Tywin, Seven save his soul.” Lord Wyman popped the meat into his mouth, chewed it noisily, smacked his lips, and said, “The road has many dangers, ser. I gave your brothers guest gifts when we took our leave of White Harbor. We swore we would meet again at the wedding. Many and more bore witness to our parting.”
(A Ghost in Winterfell, ADwD)

Manderly's answer to Hosteen is manifest in his gestures, which associate the Freys with ham.

There are other associations between pork and cannibalism. Here are Bran and his companions in an abandoned wildling village.
“You almost slept through supper. The ranger found a sow.”
Behind her, Hodor was tearing eagerly at a chunk of hot charred flesh as blood and grease ran down into his beard. Wisps of smoke rose from between his fingers. “Hodor,” he muttered between
bites, “hodor, hodor.” His sword lay on the earthen floor beside him. Jojen Reed nipped at his own joint with small bites, chewing each chunk of meat a dozen times before swallowing.
The ranger killed a pig.
(Bran I, ADwD)

Of course, it's likely that the meat comes from a human body. Is there cannibalism at the House of Black and White? There is at least a suspicion.
The dead men’s clothes and coins and valuables went into a bin for sorting. Their cold flesh would be taken to the lower sanctum where only the priests could go; what happened in there Arya was not allowed to know. Once, as she was eating her supper, a terrible suspicion seized hold of her, and she put down her knife and stared suspiciously at a slice of pale white meat. The kindly man saw the horror on her face. “It is pork, child,” he told her, “only pork.”
(Arya II, AFfC)

Another association between Freys and pigs come when Rowan and Theon argue about the murders in Winterfell.
“You killed the others, why not him? Yellow Dick—”
“—stank as bad as you. A pig of a man.”
“And Little Walder was a piglet. Killing him brought the Freys and Manderlys to dagger points, that was cunning, you—”
“Not us.”
(Theon, ADwD)
Little Walder was a piglet, true to his Crakehall ancestry and his personal sigil.

Of course, among all Freys, only those born of Lady Crakehall are to be associated with pigs. In particular not Aenys, who is a son of the Lord of the Crossing first wife, a Royce, and not Big Walder, a grandson from the fourth wife, a Blackwood.

(It's worth noting that there is a consistent association of Lannisters, the lions themselves, with pigs: Jaime squire of Lord Crakehall, Cersei having Robert killed by a boar, and being subsequently fond of this animal in her plate, Tyrion riding the sow.)

3. The Bastard's Girls

We can't consider Ramsay to be truly emblematic of the canine world, certainly not as clearly as the Starks are identified with wolves. Nevertheless, the bitches in Winterfell belong to Ramsay. Ramsay has a strong relationship with dogs.

First let's say a word of Ramsay's relationship to wolves.
Ramsay Bolton was attired as befit the lord of the Hornwood and heir to the Dreadfort. His mantle was stitched together from wolfskins and clasped against the autumn chill by the yellowed teeth of the wolf’s head on his right shoulder.
(Reek III, ADwD)
Then we get the chance to see Ramsay's bedroom, which seems to have been prepared by Lady Dustin.
The stone floor was covered with wolfskins.
(The Prince of Winterfell, ADwD)

The significance of the wolfskins is ambiguous. Does it mean that Ramsay fancies himself as the new wolf of Winterfell, or are the skins trophies from his triumph over the wolves in Winterfell?

His kennelmaster Ben Bones has been given a place of honor at the Dreadfort feast.
The best places, up near the dais, were occupied by Ramsay’s favorites, the Bastard’s Boys. Ben Bones, the old man who kept his lordship’s beloved hunting hounds.
(Reek I, ADwD)
A good summary of the importance of dogs for Ramsay is contained in this scene in Barrowton.
The fight did not end until their host’s dog was dead. Stout’s old hound never stood a mummer’s chance. He had been one against two, and Ramsay’s bitches were young, strong, and savage. Ben Bones, who liked the dogs better than their master, had told Reek they were all named after peasant girls Ramsay had hunted, raped, and killed back when he’d still been a bastard, running with the first Reek. “The ones who give him good sport, anywise. The ones who weep and beg and won’t run don’t get to come back as bitches.” The next litter to come out of the Dreadfort’s kennels would include a Kyra, Reek did not doubt. “He’s trained ’em to kill wolves as well,” Ben Bones had confided. Reek said nothing. He knew which wolves the girls were meant to kill, but he had no wish to watch the girls fighting over his severed toe.
(Reek III, ADwD)

The strange custom of giving names of his victims to his new pet can be related to the wargs that expect a second life in a wolf. Ramsay might somehow hold such a belief.

The pack of dogs seems to do most of Ramsay's hunt.
It had all been a trap, a game, a jape. Lord Ramsay loved the chase and preferred to hunt two-legged prey. All night they ran through the darkling wood, but as the sun came up the sound of a distant horn came faintly through the trees, and they heard the baying of a pack of hounds. “We should split up,” he told Kyra as the dogs drew closer. “They cannot track us both.” The girl was crazed with fear, though, and refused to leave his side, even when he swore that he would raise a host of ironborn and come back for her if she should be the one they followed.
Within the hour, they were taken. One dog knocked him to the ground, and a second bit Kyra on the leg as she scrambled up a hillside. The rest surrounded them, baying and snarling, snapping at them every time they moved, holding them there until Ramsay Snow rode up with his hunts-men. He was still a bastard then, not yet a Bolton. “There you are,” he said, smiling down at them from the saddle. “You wound me, wandering off like this. Have you grown tired of my hospitality so soon?” That was when Kyra seized a stone and threw it at his head. It missed by a good foot, and Ramsay smiled. “You must be punished.”
(Reek I, ADwD)
Whoresbane has understood the importance of dogs for Ramsay.
“You would have done better to slit his throat,” said the lord in mail. “A dog who turns against his master is fit for naught but skinning.”
(Reek I, ADwD)
In Moat Cailin, Ramsay offered Theon the improved status of a dog.
“Do this little thing for me, and you can be my dog and eat meat every day,” Lord Ramsay promised.
(Reek II, ADwD)
And he fulfill his promise.
“You’re not a man, Reek. You’re just my creature. You’ll have your wine, though. Walder, see to it. And fear not, I won’t return you to the dungeons, you have my word as a Bolton. We’ll make a dog of you instead. Meat every day, and I’ll even leave you teeth enough to eat it. You can sleep beside my girls. Ben, do you have a collar for him?”
(Reek II, ADwD)
Here is Theon's life then.
The dogs were on him before he could puzzle out which, drawn to his scent. The dogs were fond of Reek; he slept with them oft as not, and sometimes Ben Bones let him share their supper. The pack raced across the flagstones barking, circling him, jumping up to lick his filthy face, nipping at his legs. Helicent caught his left hand between her teeth and worried it so fiercely Reek feared he might lose two more fingers. Red Jeyne slammed into his chest and knocked him off his feet. She was lean, hard muscle, where Reek was loose, grey skin and brittle bones, a white-haired starveling.
(Reek III, ADwD)

In Winterfell, Theon is not forced to play the dog anymore. Except, that Ramsay wants to have dog in the bedroom at the wedding night.
Jeyne pulled her wolfskins up to her chin. “No. This is some trick. It’s him, it’s my ... my lord, my sweet lord, he sent you, this is just some test to make sure that I love him. I do, I do, I love him more than anything.” A tear ran down her cheek. “Tell him, you tell him. I’ll do what he wants ... whatever he wants ... with him or ... or with the dog or ... please ... he doesn’t need to cut my feet off, I won’t try to run away, not ever, I’ll give him sons, I swear it, I swear it ...”
(Theon, ADwD)
I believe that the dog is Theon, not an actual dog.

The strange need that Ramsay has of Theon and his desire to transform him into a dog, recalls the bond between the Stark children and their wolves, as we already discussed elsewhere.

4. The vanishing Ravens

Let's review the behaviour of ravens in the Winterfell chapters. There are innumerable ravens attending the wedding in the Winterfell godswood.
Above their heads the trees were full of ravens, their feathers fluffed as they hunched on bare brown branches, staring down at the pageantry below. Maester Luwin’s birds. Luwin was dead, and his maester’s tower had been put to the torch, yet the ravens lingered. This is their home. Theon wondered what that would be like, to have a home.
Then the mists parted, like the curtain opening at a mummer show to reveal some new tableau. The heart tree appeared in front of them, its bony limbs spread wide. Fallen leaves lay about the wide white trunk in drifts of red and brown. The ravens were the thickest here, muttering to one another in the murderers’ secret tongue. Ramsay Bolton stood beneath them, clad in high boots of soft grey leather and a black velvet doublet slashed with pink silk and glittering with garnet teardrops. A smile danced across his face. “Who comes?” His lips were moist, his neck red above his collar. “Who comes before the god?”
(The Prince of Winterfell, ADwD)
So the ravens mutter to one another. One raven seems to comment on the wedding.
All around them lights glimmered through the mists, a hundred candles pale as shrouded stars. Theon stepped back, and Ramsay and his bride joined hands and knelt before the heart tree, bowing their heads in token of submission. The weirwood’s carved red eyes stared down at them, its great red mouth open as if to laugh. In the branches overhead a raven quorked.
(The Prince of Winterfell, ADwD)

The ravens are said to be Maester Luwin's and the murderer secret tongue recalls something Luwin had told Bran.
Maester Luwin sighed. “I can teach you history, healing, herblore. I can teach you the speech of ravens, and how to build a castle, and the way a sailor steers his ship by the stars. I can teach you to measure the days and mark the seasons, and at the Citadel in Oldtown they can teach you a thousand things more. But, Bran, no man can teach you magic.”
(Bran V, AGoT)

It seems there are hundreds or thousands of ravens. Could they all be Maester's Luwin's? Maester Cressen had one hundred seventeen ravens in Dragonstone. But Winterfell is a much more important hub of communication. There are twenty other places in the north that need to communicate via raven with Winterfell. It's likely that Luwin had ravens for all the important places in the south. The number of ravens could have easily reached a thousand of more. (But then I guess Luwin needed help to take care of them. The logistics of ravenry baffle me.)
She might have said more, but then she saw the maesters. Three of them had entered together by the lord’s door behind the dais—one tall, one plump, one very young, but in their robes and chains they were three grey peas from a black pod. Before the war, Medrick had served Lord Hornwood, Rhodry Lord Cerwyn, and young Henly Lord Slate. Roose Bolton had brought them all to Winterfell to take charge of Luwin’s ravens, so messages might be sent and received from here again.
(The Prince of Winterfell, ADwD)

After the comment at the wedding, there is another comment by a raven at the bedding.
Somewhere in the godswood, a raven screamed. The dagger was still in his hand.
(The Prince of Winterfell, ADwD)

After the wedding, Theon returned three times to the godswood. He reported neither any single quork, nor any sighting of a raven. Here is the next visit.
Snow was falling on the godswood too, melting when it touched the ground. Beneath the white-cloaked trees the earth had turned to mud. Tendrils of mist hung in the air like ghostly ribbons. Why did I come here? These are not my gods. This is not my place. The heart tree stood before him, a pale giant with a carved face and leaves like bloody hands.
(The Turncloak, ADwD)
It seems that a massive presence of ravens would have been noted by Theon.

Ravens are noted two more times in Winterfell. The first one happens not long after the wedding.
Theon made his way deeper into the ruined parts of the castle. As he picked through the shattered stone that had once been Maester Luwin’s turret, ravens looked down from the gash in the wall above, muttering to one another. From time to time one would let out a raucous scream.
(The Turncloak, ADwD)

On the day before the escape and on the day of the escape, that is about fifty days after the wedding, Theon wanders in the castle, and twice in the godswood. There is no mention of ravens, except the bird sent by Arnolf Karstark.
Maester Rhodry stood beside him, a raven on his arm. The bird’s black plumage shone like coal oil in the torchlight. Wet, Theon realized. And in his lordship’s hand, a parchment. That will be wet as well. Dark wings, dark words.
(Theon, ADwD)

It seems that ravens have vanished from Winte
rfell. I am not sure there is more than one raven in the castle at the time of the escape.

However there are ravens in the wild at the crofter's village.
She blundered back onto the village green unknowing. The pinewood stakes still stood, charred and scorched but not burned through. The chains about the dead had cooled by now, she saw, but still held the corpses fast in their iron embrace. A raven was perched atop one, pulling at the tatters of burned flesh that clung to its blackened skull.
(The Sacrifice, ADwD)
I suppose the raven could be Brynden's eyes.

5. The Winterfell Meals

Where have the ravens gone? An answer to this question is suggested in the story. Let's review the meals served in Winterfell. First we have a moderately opulent wedding feast.
The Lord of White Harbor had furnished the food and drink, black stout and yellow beer and wines red and gold and purple, brought up from the warm south on fat-bottomed ships and aged in his deep cellars. The wedding guests gorged on cod cakes and winter squash, hills of neeps and great round wheels of cheese, on smoking slabs of mutton and beef ribs charred almost black, and lastly on three great wedding pies, as wide across as wagon wheels, their flaky crusts stuffed to bursting with carrots, onions, turnips, parsnips, mushrooms, and chunks of seasoned pork swimming in a savory brown gravy. Ramsay hacked off slices with his falchion and Wyman Manderly himself served, presenting the first steaming portions to Roose Bolton and his fat Frey wife, the next to Ser Hosteen and Ser Aenys, the sons of Walder Frey. “The best pie you have ever tasted, my lords,” the fat lord declared. “Wash it down with Arbor gold and savor every bite. I know I shall.”
(The Prince of Winterfell, ADwD)
The next meal we see is rather sad.
Theon queued up with the other men for porridge, ladled into wooden bowls from a row of copper kettles. The lords and knights had milk and honey and even a bit of butter to sweeten their portions, he saw, but none of that would be offered him. His reign as prince of Winterfell had been a brief one. He had played his part in the mummer’s show, giving the feigned Arya to be wed, and now he was of no further use to Roose Bolton.
(The Turncloak, ADwD)
The gruel was grey and watery, and he pushed it away after his third spoonful and let it congeal in the bowl.
(The Turncloak, ADwD)
Theon explains the situation.
He might prefer to cut the castle off from the outside world and starve out its defenders. Winterfell’s storerooms and cellar vaults were empty. A long supply train had come with Bolton and his friends of Frey up through the Neck, Lady Dustin had brought food and fodder from Barrowton, and Lord Manderly had arrived well provisioned from White Harbor ... but the host was large. With so many mouths to feed, their stores could not last for long.
(The Turncloak, ADwD)

Indeed there are thousands of people in the castle. Stannis has still not reached Wintefell fifty days after the wedding. We have a glimpse of a satisfactory meal then.
Inside, the cooks were ladling out beef-and-barley stew, thick with carrots and onions, served in trenchers hollowed from loaves of yesterday’s bread. Scraps were thrown onto the floor to be gobbled up by Ramsay’s girls and the other dogs.
(The Turncloak, ADwD)
As time passed, the portions became meager, at least for the common men.
As the garrison broke its fast that morning on stale bread fried in bacon grease (the lords and knights ate the bacon), the talk along the benches was of little but the corpse.
(A Ghost in Winterfell, ADwD)
That is confirmed a few days before the escape.
Supper was pease porridge and yesterday’s bread, and that caused muttering amongst the common men as well; above the salt, the lords and knights were seen to be eating ham.
(A Ghost in Winterfell, ADwD)
The night before the escape, there is a different regime.
The cooks served up great slabs of fresh horsemeat, charred outside and bloody red within, with roast onions and neeps ... and for once, the common soldiers ate as well as the lords and knights.
The horsemeat was too tough for the ruins of Theon’s teeth. His attempts to chew gave him excruciating pain. So he mashed the neeps and onions up together with the flat of his dagger and made a meal of that, then cut the horse up very small, sucked on each piece, and spat it out. That way at least he had the taste, and some nourishment from the grease and blood. The bone was beyond him, though, so he tossed it to the dogs and watched Grey Jeyne make off with it whilst Sara and Willow snapped at her heels.
(A Ghost in Winterfell, ADwD)
Here is the last breakfast.
He sat in the back of the Great Hall, not far from the horses, watching Abel, Rowan, and a mousy brown-haired washerwoman called Squirrel attack slabs of stale brown bread fried in bacon grease.
(Theon, ADwD)
On the dais there are sausages and eggs.
Farther down the table Wyman Manderly sat wolfing down sausages and boiled eggs, whilst old Lord Locke beside him spooned gruel into his toothless mouth.
(Theon, ADwD)
He did hear Wyman Manderly calling for more sausages and Roger Ryswell’s laughter at some jape from one-armed Harwood Stout.
(Theon, ADwD)

So Winterfell is running out of food and the common men are already suffering from it. It seems to me logical that ravens would be hunted in the godswood, unless Roose Bolton has forbidden it. But we have no sign of either possibility, except perhaps in the parallel with Stannis' men fishing the lake of the crofter's village to exhaustion.

Ravens are eaten sometime. Indeed.
“Those are Gregor’s men at Harrenhal,” Jaime reminded her. “The Mountain liked them cruel and stupid. Most like they ate your ravens, messages and all.”
(Jaime III, AFfC)

So the ravens seem to have disappeared from the godswood after the wedding. Some of them remained in the ruins of Maester Luwin's turret.

One character has connection to ravens, to the point of bearing the animal on his personal banner: Big Walder.
Big Walder’s quarterings were the tree-and-ravens of House Blackwood and the twining snakes of the Paeges.
(Bran II, ACoK)

6. The Nature of Ravens

In folklore and fantasy, the raven is an animal of a dark, gothic nature. This remains true in GRRM's world. Moreover, the raven has the function of being the messenger in the Seven Kingdoms.

Bran learns much more about ravens in the cave beyond the Wall. Startling revelations.
The children of the forest, Old Nan would have called the singers, but those who sing the song of earth was their own name for themselves, in the True Tongue that no human man could speak. The ravens could speak it, though. Their small black eyes were full of secrets, and they would caw at him and peck his skin when they heard the songs.
(Bran III, ADwD)
Then he realized he was not alone. “Someone else was in the raven,” he told Lord Brynden, once he had returned to his own skin. “Some girl. I felt her.”
“A woman, of those who sing the song of earth,” his teacher said. “Long dead, yet a part of her remains, just as a part of you would remain in Summer if your boy’s flesh were to die upon the morrow. A shadow on the soul. She will not harm you.”
“Do all the birds have singers in them?”
“All,” Lord Brynden said. “It was the singers who taught the First Men to send messages by raven ... but in those days, the birds would speak the words. The trees remember, but men forget, and so now they write the messages on parchment and tie them round the feet of birds who have never shared their skin.”
(Bran III, ADwD)

So we learnt that the ravens speak the language of the Children of the Forest, that they all have children inhabiting them, that the children were the first to use them to send messages. According to Lord Brynden, the presence of children in the ravens is an epiphenomenon: the children are not agent of any sort. Or are they?

It is not clear how the transition to the current messaging system happened. It seems that the First Men did not have parchments. It is not clear when the order of maesters has been founded. The maesters are currently the scholars of the Seven Kingdoms. But we are told that the oldest histories were written down by septons. Either the order of maesters was different then, or it has been founded after the arrival of the Andals in Westeros. There are indications of connections between Old Valyria and the Citadel (the glass candles, the sphynx, the hightower of Oldtown). And the glass candles have been brought from Valyria a thousand years before the Doom.

On the other hand, the oldest building of the Citadel is the rookery on the Isle of Ravens. And the Isle had been the lair of a pirate during the Age of Heroes. Unless I am mistaken, the Age of Heroes followed the pact between the Children and the First Men and preceded the arrival of the Andals. So the origin of ravencraft would precede by far writing, and the scholarship of maesters.

Perhaps the order of maesters was originally based on ravencraft and expanded later to include healing, counseling, and all the academia. Perhaps a study of the metals that constitute a maester's chain would reveal the order of appearance of the various disciplines. But that's a question for another day.

Maester Walgrave in the Citadel is the greatest living specialist of ravencraft, or so we infer from what Pate reports to us.
Everyone said that Walgrave had forgotten more of ravencraft than most maesters ever knew, so Pate assumed a black iron link was the least that he could hope for, only to find that Walgrave could not grant him one. The old man remained an archmaester only by courtesy.
(Prologue, AFfC)

The term ravencraft evokes an ability rather than knowledge. Furthermore, Walgrave holds the black iron mask and rod associated to ravens.

We suspect Maester Walgrave to be the father of Maester Walys, who once officiated in Winterfell in the days of Rickard Stark. Walgrave had a Hightower girl as a mistress, according to Barbrey Dustin. This situation reminds me of Runcel Hightower, who intrigued to install his bastard as lord Commander of the Night's Watch.

Jon Snow learnt something interesting about ravens from the Old Bear.
“Most ravens will eat grain, but they prefer flesh. It makes them strong, and I fear they relish the taste of blood. In that they are like men... and like men, not all ravens are alike.”
(Jon VIII, AGoT)

Let's keep in mind that ravens are carnivore and that not all ravens are alike. We see again Luwin's ravens after the sack of Winterfell.
Osha called softly through the blowing smoke as they went, but no one answered. They saw one dog worrying at a corpse, but he ran when he caught the scents of the direwolves; the rest had been slain in the kennels. The maester’s ravens were paying court to some of the corpses, while the crows from the broken tower attended others.
(Bran VII, ACoK)

We did not see again the crows of the broken tower. It's likely that Luwin has been eaten by his ravens after his death near the godswood. Indeed, there were no dogs anymore in the castle, and the crows flee when confronted with ravens. Moreover we saw that Ravens ate Maester Tothmure after he has been killed in Harrenhal.
The heads never lacked for attendants. The carrion crows wheeled about the gatehouse in raucous unkindness and quarreled upon the ramparts over every eye, screaming and cawing at each other and taking to the air whenever a sentry passed along the battlements. Sometimes the maester’s ravens joined the feast as well, flapping down from the rookery on wide black wings. When the ravens came the crows would scatter, only to return the moment the larger birds were gone.
Do the ravens remember Maester Tothmure? Arya wondered. Are they sad for him? When they quork at him, do they wonder why he doesn’t answer? Perhaps the dead could speak to them in some secret tongue the living could not hear.
(Arya X, ACoK)

Mormont's raven ate his master as well, and Walgrave expects his own ravens to devour him after his death.
The big white birds were Archmaester Walgrave’s pride. He wanted them to eat him when he died, but Pate half suspected that they meant to eat him too.
(Prologue, AFfC)

But Bran and Lord Brynden can skinchange into ravens. It's probably through the eyes of ravens that Lord Brynden has watched Bran since his birth.
I have watched you for a long time, watched you with a thousand eyes and one. I saw your birth, and that of your lord father before you. I saw your first step, heard your first word, was part of your first dream. I was watching when you fell. And now you are come to me at last, Brandon Stark, though the hour is late.”
(Bran II, ADwD)
Indeed, it doesn't seem that Lord Brynden can see through the Winterfell heart tree. He asks Bran.
“Close your eyes,” said the three-eyed crow. “Slip your skin, as you do when you join with Summer. But this time, go into the roots instead. Follow them up through the earth, to the trees upon the hill, and tell me what you see.”
(Bran III, ADwD)

Why would Brynden say Tell me what you see if he could access himself the memories of the Winterfell heart tree?

The wedding in the Winterfell godswood recalls the appearance of Coldhands.
He heard the dark red leaves of the weirwood rustling, whispering to one another in a tongue he did not know. The starlight itself seemed to stir, and all around them the trees groaned and creaked. Sam Tarly turned the color of curdled milk, and his eyes went wide as plates. Ravens! They were in the weirwood, hundreds of them, thousands, perched on the bone-white branches, peering between the leaves. He saw their beaks open as they screamed, saw them spread their black wings. Shrieking, flapping, they descended on the wights in angry clouds.
(Samwell III, ASoS)

We don't know if the ravens obey Coldhands or if they obey Lord Brynden (perhaps Coldhands is just Brynden's creature). We are reminded also of the Raventree Hall heart tree.
“And the ravens?” asked Jaime. “Where are they?”
“They come at dusk and roost all night. Hundreds of them. They cover the tree like black leaves, every limb and every branch. They have been coming for thousands of years. How or why, no man can say, yet the tree draws them every night.”
(Jaime, ADwD)

Of course, Raventree Hall is the seat of House Blackwood. Lord Brynden was a Blackwood by his mother Mylessa, who is represented as a statue in the godswood. Like Coldhands' ravens, the birds seem to follow the pattern of leaving and returning at nightfall.

Another great gathering of ravens is held at the Isle of Ravens, in Oldtown.
It was cool and dim inside the castle walls. An ancient weirwood filled the yard, as it had since these stones had first been raised. The carved face on its trunk was grown over by the same purple moss that hung heavy from the tree’s pale limbs. Half of the branches seemed dead, but elsewhere a few red leaves still rustled, and it was there the ravens liked to perch. The tree was full of them, and there were more in the arched windows overhead, all around the yard. The ground was speckled by their droppings.
(Samwell V, AFfC)

7. The Winterfell food Chain

Let's examine the various animals and their places in the food chain. We have already mentioned the pork pies.

Ramsay bitches have some scraps.
Inside, the cooks were ladling out beef-and-barley stew, thick with carrots and onions, served in trenchers hollowed from loaves of yesterday’s bread. Scraps were thrown onto the floor to be gobbled up by Ramsay’s girls and the other dogs.
The girls were glad to see him. They knew him by his smell. Red Jeyne loped over to lick at his hand, and Helicent slipped under the table and curled up by his feet, gnawing at a bone. They were good dogs. It was easy to forget that every one was named for a girl that Ramsay had hunted and killed.
(The Turncloak, ADwD)
They eat as well the dead Ryswell men-at-arm.
If Ramsay’s bitches had not dug him up, he might have stayed buried till spring. By the time Ben Bones pulled them off, Grey Jeyne had eaten so much of the dead man’s face that half the day was gone before they knew for certain who he’d been: a man-at-arms of four-and-forty years who had marched north with Roger Ryswell.
(A Ghost in Winterfell, ADwD)
Theon warns Abel that the dogs might devour the washerwomen.
“He’ll hunt them down, rape them, and feed their corpses to his dogs. If they lead him a good chase, he may name his next litter of bitches after them. You he’ll flay. Him and Skinner and Damon Dance-for-Me, they will make a game of it. You’ll be begging them to kill you.”
(Theon, ADwD)
At the end, men, dogs and horses cohabitate in the Great Hall. Horses are on the menu.
The reek within the Great Hall was palpable by eventide. With hundreds of horses, dogs, and men squeezed underneath one roof, the floors slimy with mud and melting snow, horseshit, dog turds,
and even human feces, the air redolent with the smells of wet dog, wet wool, and sodden horse blankets, there was no comfort to be found amongst the crowded benches, but there was food. The cooks served up great slabs of fresh horsemeat, charred outside and bloody red within, with roast onions and neeps ... and for once, the common soldiers ate as well as the lords and knights.
The horsemeat was too tough for the ruins of Theon’s teeth. His attempts to chew gave him excruciating pain. So he mashed the neeps and onions up together with the flat of his dagger and made a meal of that, then cut the horse up very small, sucked on each piece, and spat it out. That way at least he had the taste, and some nourishment from the grease and blood. The bone was beyond him, though, so he tossed it to the dogs and watched Grey Jeyne make off with it whilst Sara and Willow snapped at her heels.
(A Ghost in Winterfell, ADwD)

Since Stannis' horses have been eaten as well. It would seem that the last animal standing would be the dog. An ominous observation, perhaps.

Let's return to the Great Hall, when Hosteen brings Little Walder's body.
Even then the rafters still rang with shouts and prayers and curses, the shrieks of terrified horses and the growls of Ramsay’s bitches.
(Theon, ADwD)
The dogs eat pork.
Around him dogs fought over sausages.
(Theon, ADwD)

So pigs, horses and possibly ravens are eaten. The dogs seem at the top of the food chain. Meanwhile in Meereen, at Daenerys' wedding, dog is the choice meal of the feast.
No Ghiscari feast was complete without a course of dog. Hizdahr’s cooks prepared dog four different ways.
(Daenerys VIII, ADwD)

8. The Ryswells and Horses

The Ryswell banner is consistent with what Melisandre saw in her flames:
I saw a town with wooden walls and wooden streets, filled with men. Banners flew above its walls: a moose, a battle-axe, three pine trees, longaxes crossed beneath a crown, a horse’s head with fiery eyes.
(Jon IV, ADwD)

There are four banners later in Barrowton, and in Winterfell for the wedding, with horses of different colors.
Four horseheads proclaimed the four Ryswells of the Rills—one grey, one black, one gold, one brown.
(Reek III, ADwD)

Horses are omnipresent in Ryswell culture. Indeed, here is the gift given by Barbrey Dustin to her husband before he left with Ned Stark.
I gave him a horse the day he set out, a red stallion with a fiery mane, the pride of my lord father’s herds. My lord swore that he would ride him home when the war was done.
“Ned Stark returned the horse to me on his way back home to Winterfell.
(The Turncloak, ADwD)
We hear Lady Dustin praises Brandon Stark as a rider.
“Brandon was fostered at Barrowton with old Lord Dustin, the father of the one I’d later wed, but he spent most of his time riding the Rills. He loved to ride. His little sister took after him in that. A pair of centaurs, those two.
(The Turncloak, ADwD)

We have seen that Ramsay called Walda Roose fat pig wife. For Barbrey Dustin he has a less appropriate characterization.
I’ll have you back, no matter what that Dustin bitch may tell you.
(Reek III, ADwD)
Not mare, bitch. I suppose that mare is a word devoid of demeaning power.

Domeric Bolton had a Ryswell mother, Bethany, and served as a page for Lady Dustin. Roose praises his horsemanship.
Domeric. A quiet boy, but most accomplished. He served four years as Lady Dustin’s page, and three in the Vale as a squire to Lord Redfort. He played the high harp, read histories, and rode like the wind. Horses ... the boy was mad for horses, Lady Dustin will tell you. Not even Lord Rickard’s daughter could outrace him, and that one was half a horse herself. Redfort said he showed great promise in the lists. A great jouster must be a great horseman first.
(Reek III, ADwD)

So the Ryswells worship horses, but perhaps not as much as the Dothraki do. For the horselords, the horses reign supreme in the animal world. They provide meat, transportation. They accompany their riders on their pyres, so that the soul of the deceased can ride to the nightlands. Hence the horse exists on a spiritual world for the Dothraki.

It's remarkable that Lord Brynden uses horses as an analogy to explain the possibilities of skinchanging into a raven.
“A wild stallion will buck and kick when a man tries to mount him, and try to bite the hand that slips the bit between his teeth,” Lord Brynden said, “but a horse that has known one rider will accept another. Young or old, these birds have all been ridden. Choose one now, and fly.”
(Bran III, ADwD)

There is a sort of equivalence between skinchanging and riding. It might seem odd to compare the supernatural with the natural. And odder for Lord Brynden to bring up the animal of his archenemies. The analogy seems confirmed in Bran's behaviour as he alternately rides and skinchanges into Hodor.

However, there is never a mention of horses as receptacles to skinchanging.
Dogs were the easiest beasts to bond with; they lived so close to men that they were almost human. Slipping into a dog’s skin was like putting on an old boot, its leather softened by wear. As a boot was shaped to accept a foot, a dog was shaped to accept a collar, even a collar no human eye could see. Wolves were harder. A man might befriend a wolf, even break a wolf, but no man could truly tame a wolf. “Wolves and women wed for life,” Haggon often said. “You take one, that’s a marriage. The wolf is part of you from that day on, and you’re part of him. Both of you will change.”
Other beasts were best left alone, the hunter had declared. Cats were vain and cruel, always ready to turn on you. Elk and deer were prey; wear their skins too long, and even the bravest man
became a coward. Bears, boars, badgers, weasels ... Haggon did not hold with such. “Some skins you never want to wear, boy. You won’t like what you’d become.” Birds were the worst, to hear him tell it. “Men were not meant to leave the earth. Spend too much time in the clouds and you never want to come back down again. I know skinchangers who’ve tried hawks, owls, ravens. Even in their own skins, they sit moony, staring up at the bloody blue.”
Not all skinchangers felt the same, however. Once, when Lump was ten, Haggon had taken him to a gathering of such. The wargs were the most numerous in that company, the wolf-brothers, but the boy had found the others stranger and more fascinating. Borroq looked so much like his boar that all he lacked was tusks, Orell had his eagle, Briar her shadowcat (the moment he saw them, Lump wanted a shadowcat of his own), the goat woman Grisella ...
(Prologue, ADwD)

9. Horses in Winterfell

Here is the last image of the Sack of Winterfell.
The last thing Theon Greyjoy saw was Smiler, kicking free of the burning stables with his mane ablaze, screaming, rearing...
(Theon VI, ACoK)
Theon recalls the striking scene.
He set my horse afire. That was the last sight he had seen the day the castle fell: Smiler burning, the flames leaping from his mane as he reared up, kicking, screaming, his eyes white with terror. Here in this very yard.
(The Prince of Winterfell, ADwD)

There are hundred of horses in Winterfell. Indeed, the Freys have five hundred mounted men. Manderly has one hundred knights. The Dreadfort men, the Ryswells and Dustins have brought more.
“Stannis and his knights have left Deepwood Motte, flying the banner of his new red god. The clans of the northern hills come with him on their shaggy runtish horses. If the weather holds, they could be on us in a fortnight. And Crowfood Umber marches down the kingsroad, whilst the Karstarks approach from the east. They mean to join with Lord Stannis here and take this castle from us.”
(The Prince of Winterfell, ADwD)

Roose has respect for horses, and he seeks to depreciate the mountain clans by bringing attention to their mounts.

Once the storm began, the horses are suffering from the cold.
Beyond the tents the big destriers of the knights from White Harbor and the Twins were shivering in their horse lines. Ramsay had burned the stables when he sacked Winterfell, so his father had thrown up new ones twice as large as the old, to accommodate the warhorses and palfreys of his lords’ bannermen and knights. The rest of the horses were tethered in the wards. Hooded grooms moved amongst them, covering them with blankets to keep them warm.
(The Turncloak, ADwD)
And suffering more.
The horses in the yards suffered most. The blankets thrown over them to keep them warm soaked through and froze if not changed regularly. When fires were lit to keep the cold at bay, they did more harm then good. The warhorses feared the flames and fought to get away, injuring themselves and other horses as they twisted at their lines. Only the horses in the stables were safe and warm, but the stables were already overcrowded.
(A Ghost in Winterfell, ADwD)
There is an incident in the stable.
Then, before the day was done, a crossbowman sworn to the Flints turned up in the stables with a broken skull. Kicked by a horse, Lord Ramsay declared. A club, more like, Theon decided.
(A Ghost in Winterfell, ADwD)

The Flint murder is the hardest to explain of the crimes in Winterfell, at least until Little Walder is found dead. One could say that Ramsay's accusation targets the Ryswell/Dustin. But what is important comes next.
That night the new stable collapsed beneath the weight of the snow that had buried it. Twenty-six horses and two grooms died, crushed beneath the falling roof or smothered under the snows. It took the best part of the morning to dig out the bodies. Lord Bolton appeared briefly in the outer ward to inspect the scene, then ordered the remaining horses brought inside, along with the mounts still tethered in the outer ward. And no sooner had the men finished digging out the dead men and butchering the horses than another corpse was found.
(A Ghost in Winterfell, ADwD)
I suppose only a fraction of the hundreds of horses could be accomodated in the Great Hall.
The reek within the Great Hall was palpable by eventide. With hundreds of horses, dogs, and men squeezed underneath one roof, the floors slimy with mud and melting snow, horseshit, dog turds, and even human feces, the air redolent with the smells of wet dog, wet wool, and sodden horse blankets, there was no comfort to be found amongst the crowded benches, but there was food. The cooks served up great slabs of fresh horsemeat, charred outside and bloody red within, with roast onions and neeps ... and for once, the common soldiers ate as well as the lords and knights.
(A Ghost in Winterfell, ADwD)

10. The pale Lord and the golden Skull

Now a brief detour via the First Men, according to maester Luwin.
“But some twelve thousand years ago, the First Men appeared from the east, crossing the Broken Arm of Dorne before it was broken. They came with bronze swords and great leathern shields, riding horses. No horse had ever been seen on this side of the narrow sea. No doubt the children were as frightened by the horses as the First Men were by the faces in the trees.
(Bran VII, AGoT)

So the First Men were a sort of horse culture, perhaps not unlike the Dothraki. And the Children perceived them as hostile.

Later some of the First Men and some of the Children made peace. So the ravens who have a child of the forest in them might have kept their fear of horses.

That might have given rise to one of the great rivalry of the Seven Kingdoms: House Blackwood and House Bracken.

Here is the description of Tytos Blackwood.
In silver inlay on the breastplate of his burnished scarlet armor was a white tree bare and dead, surrounded by a flock of onyx ravens taking flight. A cloak of raven feathers fluttered from his shoulders.
(Jaime, ADwD)
House Blackwood has firmly stayed faithful to the old gods. Here is the Blackwood version of the story.
“It is, my lord,” the boy said, “but some of the histories were penned by their maesters and some by ours, centuries after the events that they purport to chronicle. It goes back to the Age of Heroes. The Blackwoods were kings in those days. The Brackens were petty lords, renowned for breeding horses. Rather than pay their king his just due, they used the gold their horses brought them to hire swords and cast him down.”
“When did all this happen?”
“Five hundred years before the Andals. A thousand, if the True History is to be believed. Only no one knows when the Andals crossed the narrow sea. The True History says four thousand years have passed since then, but some maesters claim that it was only two. Past a certain point, all the dates grow hazy and confused, and the clarity of history becomes the fog of legend.”
(Jaime, ADwD)
“So you are fighting over a crown that one of you took from the other back when the Casterlys still held Casterly Rock, is that the root of it? The crown of a kingdom that has not existed for thousands of years?” He chuckled. “So many years, so many wars, so many kings ... you’d think someone would have made a peace.”
“Someone did, my lord. Many someones. We’ve had a hundred peaces with the Brackens, many sealed with marriages. There’s Blackwood blood in every Bracken, and Bracken blood in every Blackwood. The Old King’s Peace lasted half a century. But then some fresh quarrel broke out, and the old wounds opened and began to bleed again. That’s how it always happens, my father says. So long as men remember the wrongs done to their forebears, no peace will ever last. So we go on century after century, with us hating the Brackens and them hating us. My father says there will never be an end to it.”
(Jaime, ADwD)
The Bracken version of the disagreement.
“We will be content with whatever portion my lord thinks fair. If I may offer you some counsel, though, it does not serve to be too gentle with these Blackwoods. Treachery runs in their blood. Before the Andals came to Westeros, House Bracken ruled this river. We were kings and the Blackwoods were our vassals, but they betrayed us and usurped the crown. Every Blackwood is born a turncloak. You would do well to remember that when you are making terms.”
(Jaime, ADwD)
Here is Jonos Bracken's tent.
The tent was brown, like the standard flapping from its center pole, where the red stallion of House Bracken reared upon its gold escutcheon.
(Jaime, ADwD)
And Lord Jonos has indeed a passion for horses.
Lord Jonos Bracken was waiting for him outside Raventree, just beyond the range of a good crossbow. He was mounted on an armored destrier and had donned his plate and mail, and a grey steel greathelm with a horsehair crest.
(Jaime, ADwD)

The red stallion seems to be significant. Indeed, we saw that Barbrey Dustin gave one such to her husband when he left to fight with Ned Stark. Kahl Drogo had one as a wedding gift. Tyrion rode one when he entered King's Landing as Hand of the King. Interestingly Adam Marbrand had one as well, and House Marbrand has a burning weirwood as a sigil, probably a reference to the First Men who put the heart trees to the torch.

The antagonism took an interesting turn a century ago with the Blackfyre Rebellion. Bloodraven, born Brynden Rivers, was born as the bastard of King Aegon IV and Melyssa Blackwood, who supplanted Barbra Bracken, Bittersteel's mother, as mistress of the King. Both Bloodraven and Bittersteel were kingmakers, supporting Daeron and Daemon respectively.

Beside the antagonisms between their mothers' houses, and their respective political allegiances, a third factor contributed to the rivalry between Bittersteel and Bloodraven: a woman, Shiera Seastar, their half-sister born of the King's last mistress, a certain Sereni of Lys. Shiera was desired by both half-brothers.

After the battle of the Redgrass Field, Bittersteel went into exile in Tyrosh with the remaining Blackfyres. He came to found the Golden Company, sworn to reinstalling a Blackfyre on the Iron Throne.

Bloodraven ruled the realm as hand of the king during a number of years, and seems to have fallen into disgrace under the reign of Maekar. Sixty seven years ago he had been sent to the Wall, where he became Lord Commander. We don't know how Brynden Rivers ended in the cave beyond the Wall.

Neither Bloodraven nor Bittersteel have forgotten the totemic animals of their maternal sides. Bloodraven seems to be able to skinchange into a raven. Bittersteel's personal banner is a red horse, winged and breathing fire, on a golden field. It recalls strongly the Bracken banner.

So the Blackfyre Rebellion was, at least partly, driven by the ancient antagonism between horses and ravens.

We are surprised to learn that Lord Brynden is still alive and watching the events in Westeros. How about Bittersteel? Let's go to the Golden Company encampment near the Rhoyne.
The captain-general’s tent was made of cloth-of-gold and surrounded by a ring of pikes topped with gilded skulls. One skull was larger than the rest, grotesquely malformed. Below it was a second, no larger than a child’s fist. Maelys the Monstrous and his nameless brother. The other skulls had a sameness to them, though several had been cracked and splintered by the blows that had slain them, and one had filed, pointed teeth. “Which one is Myles?” Griff found himself asking.
“There. On the end.” Flowers pointed. “Wait. I’ll go announce you.” He slipped inside the tent, leaving Griff to contemplate the gilded skull of his old friend. In life, Ser Myles Toyne had been ugly as sin. His famous forebear, the dark and dashing Terrence Toyne of whom the singers sang, had been so fair of face that even the king’s mistress could not resist him; but Myles had been possessed of jug ears, a crooked jaw, and the biggest nose that Jon Connington had ever seen. When he smiled at you, though, none of that mattered. Blackheart, his men had named him, for the sigil on his shield. Myles had loved the name and all it hinted at. “A captain-general should be feared, by friend and foe alike,” he had once confessed. “If men think me cruel, so much the better.” The truth was otherwise. Soldier to the bone, Toyne was fierce but always fair, a father to his men and always generous to the exile lord Jon Connington.
Death had robbed him of his ears, his nose, and all his warmth. The smile remained, transformed into a glittering golden grin. All the skulls were grinning, even Bittersteel’s on the tall pike in the center. What does he have to grin about? He died defeated and alone, a broken man in an alien land. On his deathbed, Ser Aegor Rivers had famously commanded his men to boil the flesh from his skull, dip it in gold, and carry it before them when they crossed the sea to retake Westeros. His successors had followed his example.
(The Lost Lord, ADwD)

The name Golden Company, refers probably to the payment asked by the mercenary company, and to the gold on the skulls. It might also be a distant, but significant, reference to the gold of the Brackens, with which swords were hired to cast down the Blackwoods.

So Bittersteel's skull, on a tall pike in the center, seems to preside over a ring of other skulls.

It's not unlike Bloodraven's present situation. Indeed, in the cave Bran notices well preserved skulls.
“Bones,” said Bran. “It’s bones.” The floor of the passage was littered with the bones of birds and beasts. But there were other bones as well, big ones that must have come from giants and small ones that could have been from children. On either side of them, in niches carved from the stone, skulls looked down on them. Bran saw a bear skull and a wolf skull, half a dozen human skulls and near as many giants. All the rest were small, queerly formed. Children of the forest. The roots had grown in and around and through them, every one. A few had ravens perched atop them, watching them pass with bright black eyes.
(Bran II, ADwD)

We can suppose the skulls once belonged to greenseers, now gone into the trees, perhaps Bloodraven can still communicate with them.

I would speculate that Bittersteel, like his nemesis Bloodraven, is still alive and watching. The fact that the Golden Company has endured and followed the precepts of its founder is a testimony that Bittersteel is apt to impose his will from the grave. Stannis recalls Bittersteel's history.
Daemon Blackfyre was a rebel and usurper, Bittersteel a bastard. When he fled, he swore he would return to place a son of Daemon's upon the Iron Throne.
(Theon, TWoW)

Is there a sorcery that keeps Bittersteel active? It's possible, and we might never be told explicitly. However the parallel between the skulls of the captain-generals of the Company and the skulls of the deceased greenseers is suggestive enough. Moreover the gilded skulls would suggest a form of preservation, perhaps from the magic of the children of the forest. Perhaps Bittersteel feared his bones would be fed to a heart tree and his memories enter the weirwood network.

It's interesting to note how well equipped in archery the Golden Company is.
Black Balaq commanded one thousand bows. In his youth, Jon Connington had shared the disdain most knights had for bowmen, but he had grown wiser in exile. In its own way, the arrow was as deadly as the sword, so for the long voyage he had insisted that Homeless Harry Strickland break Balaq’s command into ten companies of one hundred men and place each company upon a different ship.
Six of those ships had stayed together well enough to deliver their passengers to the shores of Cape Wrath (the other four were lagging but would turn up eventually, the Volantenes assured them, but Griff thought it just as likely they were lost or had landed elsewhere), which left the company with six hundred bows. For this, two hundred proved sufficient. “They will try to send out ravens,” he told Black Balaq. “Watch the maester’s tower. Here.” He pointed to the map he had drawn in the mud of their campsite. “Bring down every bird that leaves the castle.”
“This we do,” replied the Summer Islander.
A third of Balaq’s men used crossbows, another third the double-curved horn-and-sinew bows of the east. Better than these were the big yew long-bows borne by the archers of Westerosi blood, and
best of all were the great bows of goldenheart treasured by Black Balaq himself and his fifty Summer Islanders. Only a dragonbone bow could outrange one made of goldenheart. Whatever bow they carried, all of Balaq’s men were sharp-eyed, seasoned veterans who had proved their worth in a hundred battles, raids, and skirmishes. They proved it again at Griffin’s Roost.
(The Griffin Reborn, ADwD)

So the first action of the Golden Company as it set foot on Westeros was to shoot the ravens of Griffin's Roost.

The first important stronghold conquered by the Golden Company would turn out to be Storm's End, whose godswood had been put to the torch on Melisandre's order.

The rivalry between Bittersteel and Bloodraven, indirect as it might seem, is as alive as ever. The question is: to what extent is it a part of a larger, more ancient antagonism?

11. The Leech Lord

There is an eerie scene involving animals in a fantasmatic way during the wedding.
Here and there a torch burned hungrily, casting its ruddy glow over the faces of the wedding guests. The way the mists threw back the shifting light made their features seem bestial, half-human, twisted. Lord Stout became a mastiff, old Lord Locke a vulture, Whoresbane Umber a gargoyle, Big Walder Frey a fox, Little Walder a red bull, lacking only a ring for his nose. Roose Bolton’s own face was a pale grey mask, with two chips of dirty ice where his eyes should be.
(The Prince of Winterfell, ADwD)

I can't see any significance to the associations. Lord Stout has nothing to do with mastiffs (unless it is a reference to the poor hound killed by Ramsay's bitches) etc.

Another animal is presumably present in Winterfell: the leech. Since Harrenhal, we know that Roose is fond of leeches in hope of gaining long life. The practice has even earned him the title of Lord of Leeches in the Riverlands (at least within the Brotherhood without Banners).

Theon reminds us of that.
Once, a boy called Theon Greyjoy had enjoyed tweaking Bolton as they sat at council with Robb Stark, mocking his soft voice and making japes about leeches.
(Reek II, ADwD)
Roose explains the benefits of leeches to Theon.
“I know.” Lord Bolton sighed. “His blood is bad. He needs to be leeched. The leeches suck away the bad blood, all the rage and pain. No man can think so full of anger. Ramsay, though ... his tainted blood would poison even leeches, I fear.”
(Reek III, ADwD)
Abel adapts the lyrics of the Dornishman's Wife, I suppose for Roose.

But the Northman's blade had a song of its own,
and a bite sharp and cold as a leech.

(The Turncloak, ADwD)
And the leeches come up again from Lady Dustin.
Roose has no feelings, you see. Those leeches that he loves so well sucked all the passions out of him years ago. He does not love, he does not hate, he does not grieve. This is a game to him, mildly diverting. Some men hunt, some hawk, some tumble dice. Roose plays with men. You and me, these Freys, Lord Manderly, his plump new wife, even his bastard, we are but his playthings.
(The Prince of Winterfell, ADwD)

Of all the animals we have examined: the pig, the horse, the raven, the dog, I would say that Roose has only clear fondness for horses. In other words, his preference would seem to be for Lady Dustin among the allies we see.

The first sign of Roose's passion for horses is to be found in Arya's escape:
She had the faster horse, she knew that, she had stolen one of Roose Bolton’s best from the stables at Harrenhal, but his speed was wasted here.
(Arya, ASoS)
Then we have Domeric's education.
Horses ... the boy was mad for horses, Lady Dustin will tell you. Not even Lord Rickard’s daughter could outrace him, and that one was half a horse herself. Redfort said he showed great promise in the lists. A great jouster must be a great horseman first.
(Reek III, ADwD)

When Roose wants to depreciate the mountain clans who have joined Stannis, he uses the horse angle.
“Stannis and his knights have left Deepwood Motte, flying the banner of his new red god. The clans of the northern hills come with him on their shaggy runtish horses.“
(The Prince of Winterfell, ADwD)

Roose likes to hunt on horses. His activity precisely, when he met Ramsay's mother. Here is all he finds to deplore after the day is done:
The fox escaped as well, and on our way back to the Dreadfort my favorite courser came up lame, so all in all it was a dismal day.
(Reek III, ADwD)

But Lady Dustin herself, the very incarnation of the interest that Roose has for horses, said Those leeches that he loves so well... As if the preference of Roose would be ultimately for leeches.

The Winterfell Huis Clos