The Winterfell Huis Clos


On the surface, the escape from Winterfell seems to be Melisandre's idea: she gave Mance Rayder the mission of delivering Arya Stark to Jon Snow to earn the trust and the friendship of the Lord Commander.

Several things complicate this simplistic reading.

Something unaccounted for happened between Mance's departure from Castle Black and his arrival in Winterfell. Mance had no means to know the wedding would take place there.

For Mance it's not a simple mission. It's the story of Bael the Bard all over again, and much more.

As we shall see, several events that favoured the escape can not be fortuitous. It can not be purely the work of Abel and his washerwomen.

Among the guest of Winterfell some came plotting revenge for the Red Wedding and the Sack of Winterfell. That has not escaped Mance as he left Winterfell.


  1. The Stakes
  2. The Necessities
  3. Two Walls and a Moat
  4. The Conspirators
  5. The Escape
  6. Greybeards
  7. Lord Brynden and the old Gods
  8. The Non-Conspirators
  9. The Conspirators and Stannis
  10. The Conspiracy beyond the Escape

1. The Stakes

It is probably well known to all, but let's recall the political reasoning that led to the wedding in Winterfell. The supremacy in the north has been the Starks' prerogative for thousand of years. After Theon had taken Winterfell, Roose Bolton concluded that the Stark era is over and proceeded to establish the Dreadfort as the supreme seat in the north. Roose has the support of the Iron Throne. But he is well aware that he is not well liked, and that he is likely to be seen as an usurper by the other northmen. 

The political goal pursued by Roose by arranging the marriage of Ramsay with Arya is to have a grandchild via the Stark heiress and thus gain control of the Stark inheritance. Without the Stark legitimacy, even if Roose were to prevail against Stannis, gaining thus a few years of political control over the north, it is likely that sooner or later a rebellion of northmen rallying behind some Stark would overthrow the Boltons, especially since the Lannister alliance is currently shaky, and many northmen are eager for vengeance. Roose understands very well this situation.

Therefore the disappearance of "Arya", that under all likehood most northmen know to be an imposter, undermines severely Roose's control over the north and condemns him to fall at the first sign of weakness.

Recall that "Arya"'s escape with Theon had been foreshadowed by Arya's escape from Harrenhal, then ruled by Roose Bolton.

Roose almost certainly does not care about Ramsay himself. He might even prepare to make a scapegoat out of his son.

For Ramsay, the loss of the bride is even more damaging. Indeed, she brought as a dowry the lordship of Winterfell, which is Ramsay's main title if he loses the inheritance to the Dreadfort. After the disappearance of the bride, the title can be contested. Ramsay's situation is now comparable to Littlefinger's in the Vale, where the Lords Declarant have rebelled against the dowager Lord of the Eyrie. It might encourage Ramsay to make a coup against Roose and Walda and claim the Dreadfort.

For the Freys, the calculation is more complicated and the disappearance of the bride can be beneficial in some sense. It weakens Ramsay, and prevents him from having an heir. In the end, it secures the Dreadfort for Walda's sons. Unless, as we just discussed, Ramsay tries to gain the Dreadfort in desperation.The loss of power of Roose that would be caused by the disappearance of "Arya" would obviously affects adversely Walda. But, the escape is much more Ramsay's problem, and it seems unlikely the Freys would put much effort in recovering the bride.

2. The Necessities of the Escape

More than month, perhaps up to fifty days, elapsed between the wedding ceremony and the escape. Why so long?

In my opinion, it has to be explained by Mance's project to visit the crypts. Mance had not found the entrance until a few days before the escape.

A short moment of thinking reveals that the escape was an extraordinarily difficult challenge: "Arya" stayed well guarded in the nuptial bedroom and never appeared in public after the wedding day. The castle was locked with thousand of soldiers. The terrible snowstorm would have made the survival of unequipped fugitives impossible.

So it was necessary to find:
  • a way to reach the bride, who was locked in the Great Keep,
  • allies inside the castle,
  • favorable circumstances to sneak out of the castle,
  • help outside to escape pursuers and survive in dire conditions.
The way to reach the bride might have been suggested by Yellow Dick. The Bastard's boys were admitted in the nuptial chamber and were allowed to witness Ramsay's mistreatment of "Arya". We saw only the bath maids and Theon.

Yellow Dick was found dead a day before the escape. He was in position to say that Theon was in charge of the bride's bathes. That information could have come from the people at the kitchen as well, since Theon would come there everyday with serving women. But Yellow Dick knew who is in charge of guarding the bride, what are Ramsay's habits etc.

Until it was known that Theon has been maimed by Ramsay, it was not possible to know that he could betray Ramsay. This knowledge seems to have come to the washerwomen the day before the escape, perhaps through the hooded man. In the godswood, the night before the escape Rowan said:
“Did the Bastard hurt you?” Rowan asked. “Chopped off your fingers, did he? Skinned your widdle toes? Knocked your teeth out? Poor lad.”
(A Ghost in Winterfell, ADwD)

No mention of Theon's other mutilation.

The scene in Ned Stark's solar shows that it is not well known that Theon has been maimed by Ramsay, even if the flaying is common knowledge (Robett Glover, various letters containing Theon's skin, even common men at the Wall). It is well known that Ramsay had flayed Theon to some extent. But the extent of the persecution is not well known. The Bastard boys do know, including Yellow Dick, as do a number of other Dreadfort men, I presume. The Walders know as well, since they visited Theon in his cell at the Dreadfort. Finally Whoresbane knew as well. But Theon has shown and mentioned his missing fingers only to the hooded man, and the four lords and lady in the solar (Aenys Frey, Roger Ryswell, Barbrey Dustin, and Roose Bolton). And Aenys Frey and Roger Ryswell were surprised to see Theon's missing fingers.

Apparently the washerwomen did not know that Theon has been maimed by Ramsay before the scene in the godswood. Indeed Rowan asked Theon to dance and to smile the first time she approached him, she wouldn't if she had known that toes and teeth were missing. So the washerwomen could have learned about Ramsay's persecution of Theon through one of the four lords in the solar (unlikely), through the hooded man (possible) or through Yellow Dick, who might have talked before being murdered.

About the allies outside the castle, we will see that there was a Rowan-hooded man-Crowfood axis, and that Crowfood was an accomplice. But means of communication with the outside were needed.

3. Two Walls and a Moat

Let's review briefly how it was possible to send messages outside. While Roose rules Winterfell, the castle is a prison.
Every gate was closed and barred and heavily guarded, though; no one was allowed to enter or depart the castle without Lord Bolton’s leave.
(The Turncloak, ADwD)
Lord Bolton had Winterfell sewn up tight as a babe’s swaddling clothes.
(A Ghost in Winterfell, ADwD)

I see several possibilities for the communication with the outside. Mance or Squirrel could have scaled the Wall. They are both expert climbers and under the heavy snowfall it was possible to move unseen. Indeed, Mance (as Rattleshirt) told Jon.
A man who has climbed the Wall half a hundred times can climb in a window easy enough.
(Melisandre, ADwD)
And Squirrel has similar skills.
Squirrel answered for herself. “Out a window, and straight down to the godswood. I was twelve the first time my brother took me raiding south o’ your Wall. That’s where I got my name. My brother said I looked like a squirrel running up a tree. I’ve done that Wall six times since, over and back again. I think I can climb down some stone tower.”
(Theon, ADwD)

The night before the escape, when the horn was heard, Squirrel was not with Rowan, Myrtle and Holly in the godswood.

Another possibility: to have sent messengers in the place of the Ryswell outriders which went out through the Hunter's Gate, or to have an agreement with the grey Ryswell, perhaps Roose Ryswell.
“To fight Lord Stannis we would first need to find him,” Roose Ryswell pointed out. “Our scouts go out the Hunter’s Gate, but of late, none of them return.”
(A Ghost in Winterfell, ADwD)

(I believe the Ryswells are allies of Roose Bolton, but Roose Ryswell is a cousin of the main Ryswellls, and there is a quarrel in the family. It seems more likely to me that the scouts were taken out by Mors and his men.)

A third possibility is through Mance's music, which can be heard from outside the Great Hall by Theon, and therefore possibly from the other side of the Winterfell Walls.
He could hear the sound of music from the hall behind him. A soft song now, and sad.
(A Ghost in Winterfell, ADwD)

However, Theon seems to be just outside of the Great Hall. Two huge walls and a moat separate Crowfood and co from the Great Hall. So it is hard to believe Mance's song could be heard from outside.

A variant that could apply for the night before the escape would base communication on the drumming heard all night. There seems to have been drumming outside the castle, and perhaps as well inside.
The drumming seemed to be coming from the wolfswood beyond the Hunter’s Gate. They are just outside the walls.
(A Ghost in Winterfell, ADwD)
Later, Theon is unsure of the provenance of the sound.
And in the heart of the wood the weirwood waited with its knowing red eyes. Theon stopped by the edge of the pool and bowed his head before its carved red face. Even here he could hear the drumming, boom DOOM boom DOOM boom DOOM boom DOOM. Like distant thunder, the sound seemed to come from everywhere at once.
(A Ghost in Winterfell, ADwD)

So I suppose it is possible that a washerwoman has communicated with the outside via the drumming. That would suppose that a communication conventions had been established between both parties before. We have no sign of that. Several drums have been heard during the night.
By the time the sky began to lighten the sound of drums had faded away, though warhorns were heard thrice more, each time a little closer.
(Theon, ADwD)
So I don't find the communication by drumming to be very convincing.

A fourth possibility would be to use the snowmen erected on the battlements.
Above, he could see some squires building snowmen along the battlements. They were arming them with spears and shields, putting iron halfhelms on their heads, and arraying them along the inner wall, a rank of snowy sentinels.
(The Turncloak, ADwD)
The Snowmen are mentioned again.
Huddled in their hooded cloaks, the guards outside were almost indistinguishable from the snowmen.
(Theon, ADwD)
The snowmen the squires had built had grown into monstrous giants, ten feet tall and hideously misshapen.
(Theon, ADwD)

I suppose that message could be sent by arranging the snowmen in certain ways, putting spears upwards etc. Of course a code would have to have been agreed on beforehand. I don't think this mean of communication could have been thought as reliable. Moreover under heavy snowfall, it is not possible to see the snowmen from far away.

There is sign of suspicious activity on the outer wall the night before the escape. Indeed, Theon observes that the sentinels cluster in the guard towers to escape the cold and the snow.
Sentries crowded into the guard turrets to warm half-frozen hands over glowing braziers, leaving the wallwalks to the snowy sentinels the squires had thrown up, who grew larger and stranger every night as wind and weather worked their will upon them.
(A Ghost in Winterfell, ADwD)
But the night before the escape, still a few hours before the horn is first heard.
"Theon trudged through the storm until his arms and legs were caked with snow and his hands and feet had gone numb from cold, then climbed to the battlements of the inner wall again. Up here, a hundred feet high, a little wind was blowing, stirring the snow. All the crenels had filled up. Theon had to punch through a wall of snow to make a hole … only to find that he could not see beyond the moat. Of the outer wall, nothing remained but a vague shadow and a few dim lights floating in the dark."
(A Ghost in Winterfell, ADwD)

The snow obturating the view from the inner wall is a sign that sentinels on the inner wall have not been watching the outer wall. The few dim lights can come from the sentinels on the outer wall, or someone is exploiting the dark, the snow, the cold to do some business on the outer wall.

Among all these hypotheses, I could only be satisfied by the Ryswell betrayal. The Ryswells came under four different banners because of their quarrel: horses coloured gold, brown, black and grey. It stands to reason that the Ryswell truly faithful to the Starks came under the grey horse sigil. Thus, I call the hypothetical traitor the grey Ryswell (my favorite candidate for that role is Roose Ryswell).

4. The Conspirators

There is little doubt that Crowfood collaborated with Mance and the spearwives.

Mance left Castle Black expecting to find "Arya" at Long Lake, before the location of the wedding was moved from Barrowton to Winterfell. But Mance arrived in time in Winterfell for the wedding. Of course, Roose wanted Stannis and his allies to come to Winterfell. So Stannis, Arnolf Karstark and Crowfood were all warned. Since Long Lake in Umber Lands, the logical conclusion is that Crowfood informed Mance.

According to my interpretation of the hornblowing, the horn has been sounded from inside the castle and the drumming outside was a ploy to confuse everyone about the origin of the sound. The drums seemed to have been sounded by Crowfood greenboys. Of course, it implies a coordination between whoever blew the horn and Crowfood.

Abel and the washerwomen needed help once outside the castle. They are strong and resourceful, but Theon and "Arya" are not. It's unlikely that all could escape the hunt by the Dreadfort men and survive in the blizzard. So Crowfood's help is providential, since it provided equipment for the snow, food and some protection because of the pit traps that slowed the Freys and distracted attention.

Here is how Theon recalls being found by Crowfood outside the walls of Winterfell.

Crowfood. Theon remembered. An old man, huge and powerful, with a ruddy face and a shaggy white beard. He had been seated on a garron, clad in the pelt of a gigantic snow bear, its head his hood. Under it he wore a stained white leather eye patch that reminded Theon of his uncle Euron. He'd wanted to rip it off Umber's face, to make certain that underneath was only an empty socket, not a black eye shining with malice. Instead he had whimpered through his broken teeth and said, "I am...” "
"...”  a turncloak and a kinslayer," Crowfood had finished.  "You will hold that lying tongue, or lose it."          
But Umber had looked at the girl closely, squinting down with his one good eye.  "You are the younger daughter?"
And Jeyne had nodded.  "Arya.  My name is Arya."

(Theon, TWoW)

Therefore Crowfood recognized immediately Theon, while Asha could not a few days later. Moreover Crowfood identified immediately "Arya". It's clear that he expected them.

Stannis seems to believe Crowfood's presence was providential.

Stannis snorted.  "You fell.  Umber saved her.  If Mors Crowfood and his men had not been outside the castle, Bolton would have had the both of you back in moments."
(Theon, TWoW)

So Crowfood has been warned of the escape. It's unclear how Mance could have convinced Crowfood to work with him. Since Mors Umber has asked Stannis for the skull of the King-beyond-the-Wall, it is not certain that Mance has revealed its true identity to Crowfood.

An additional point of interest provides a clue of something else. Crowfood calls Theon a turncloak, like every northman does. He also calls him a kinslayer. A grave and apparently unjustified accusation. It has been used for the first time by the hooded man in Winterfell and the next day by Rowan. A sign that the hooded man, Rowan and Crowfood have communicated.

The logic of the kinslayer accusation seems to lead to Wex and Robett Glover and consequently to people around Manderly. I do not know who the hooded man is. It seems that he talked to Rowan, and probably Manderly the night before the escape, if we use the analogy with the feast at White Harbor, when Manderly met secretly Glover and Davos while he pretended to go to the privy.

The signs of cooperation of Manderly with Crowfood began with the relationship initiated at the Harvest Feast in Winterfell when Ser Rodrik commanded them to work together to build a fleet.

The wood of the Umbers seem to have been transported along the White Knife.

“The Whoresbane his own self,” claimed a riverman who’d just brought a load of hides and timber down the White Knife, “with three hundred spear-men and a hundred archers. Some Hornwood men have joined them, and Cerwyns too.”
(Davos II, ADwD)

So the river might have served as the channel of communication between the Manderlys and the Umbers.

Moreover, the absence of singer among the musicians brought by Manderly to Winterfell was providential for Abel's acceptance in Winterfell. It points to a connivence with Abel. 

Another sign of good understanding between Manderly and Crowfood resides in the good fortune of the Manderly men who left Winterfell through the East Gate, while the Freys who left via the main gate fell into Crowfood's pits.

Whoresbane does not seem to have played any role in the escape. He had already left the Last Hearth when Mance was still at Castle Black. Many, including Roose, suspect Hother not to be loyal to the Bolton cause.

5. The Escape

Mance has declared to be inspired by Bael the Bard. Nevertheless, Mance's ambition in Winterfell is completely different from Bael's.

It's likely that the conspirators know that "Arya" is an imposter. The real Arya Stark has visited twice White Harbor with her father. Mance had a close look at the Stark children when he came to Winterfell to see King Robert, and recognized Jon Snow at first sight. Whoresbane is quite perceptive and managed to recognize Theon at the Dreadfort. Even Jaime Lannister felt that something was amiss when he saw Arya's impersonator. (It's true that Jaime visited Winterfell and made the journey along the Kingsroad with the Starks, but he said to never have paid attention to Arya.)

About fifty days elapsed between the wedding and the escape. Mance and the washerwomen did nothing beside gathering information until the last three days. It's likely that they understood that the three main allies of Roose (the Dustins/Ryswells, the Freys, and Ramsay) hate each other. Mance and co killed one man belonging to each of these factions (the Ryswell man-at-arm, Aenys Frey's squire, Yellow Dick). The reason for the murder of the Flint crossbowman remains mysterious for me. Finally the collapse of the stables, followed by the relocation of the horses to the Great Hall made life unbearable in the castle.

The plan for escape has been finalized the day before the escape, since Theon agreed the night before. The help of Crowfood has been arranged before the wedding, we can suppose. But it is not possible that Crowfood would know that Abel was to escape on that particular day without information from inside. It seems that the sounding of the horn came from inside Winterfell, and the drumming answered it from outside. So the drummers had to know that the horn would be blown that night.

It seems that the hooded man came from outside the castle. If he wasn't an official visitor, he needed help to enter the castle. I can only see the Ryswell scouts. Since there are thousands of men in Winterfell, it is possible that the hooded man was there unnoticed, and could have met with Manderly, Mance, Rowan. However, Roose watches everyone, especially Manderly, as Lady Dustin noticed for us.

You think Roose does not know? Silly boy. Watch him. Watch how he watches Manderly. No dish so much as touches Roose’s lips until he sees Lord Wyman eat of it first. No cup of wine is sipped until he sees Manderly drink of the same cask.

(The Prince of Winterfell, ADwD)

I can imagine that the hooded man came with the message that Crowfood has positioned his green boys around the castle, that the pit traps are ready, that the boys are prepared to play drums as soon as they hear the horn, and that the escape should take place as soon as the armies leave the castle – and of course that Theon is a kinslayer. He might have passed a message to Manderly about the situation of possible White Harbor forces.

Is it enough communication for the coordination between Crowfood and Mance? At best, barely.

Since Crowfood asks the girl with Theon to prove she is Arya Stark, and since the conspirators inside know she is an imposter, we can conclude that no information left the castle and reached Crowfood. So something is amiss. How could Crowfood have been informed of the coming of Theon and "Arya" and not been informed that the bride is an imposter? Perhaps Mance neglected to tell him.

6. Greybeards

Here is a basic fact of life in the north.
“My lady, how do things stand at Karhold with your food stores?”
“Not well.” Alys sighed. “My father took so many of our men south with him that only the women and young boys were left to bring the harvest in. Them, and the men too old or crippled to go off to war. Crops withered in the fields or were pounded into the mud by autumn rains. And now the snows are come. This winter will be hard. Few of the old people will survive it, and many children will perish as well.”
It was a tale that any northmen knew well. “My father’s grandmother was a Flint of the mountains, on his mother’s side,” Jon told her. “The First Flints, they call themselves. They say the other Flints are the blood of younger sons, who had to leave the mountains to find food and land and wives. It has always been a harsh life up there. When the snows fall and food grows scarce, their young must travel to the winter town or take service at one castle or the other. The old men gather up what strength remains in them and announce that they are going hunting. Some are found come spring. More are never seen again.”
“It is much the same at Karhold.”
(Jon X, ADwD)
Big Bucket puts the same idea eloquently.
Ser Corliss Penny gave the clan chief an incredulous look. “Do you want to die, Wull?”
That seemed to amuse the northman. “I want to live forever in a land where summer lasts a thousand years. I want a castle in the clouds where I can look down over the world. I want to be six-and-twenty again. When I was six-and-twenty I could fight all day and fuck all night. What men want does not matter.
“Winter is almost upon us, boy. And winter is death. I would sooner my men die fighting for the Ned’s little girl than alone and hungry in the snow, weeping tears that freeze upon their cheeks. No one sings songs of men who die like that. As for me, I am old. This will be my last winter. Let me bathe in Bolton blood before I die. I want to feel it spatter across my face when my axe bites deep into a Bolton skull. I want to lick it off my lips and die with the taste of it on my tongue.”
(The King's Prize, ADwD)

And winter is death. For old men, at least. Only the next generation needs to be preserved. This is Whoresbane and Crowfood's understanding. It is telling that Theon tells Stannis.
"As you will. Tell me, Theon, how many men did Mors Umber have with him at Winterfell?"
"None. No men." He grinned at his own wit.  "He had boys. I saw them." Aside from a handful of half-crippled serjeants, the warriors that Crowfood had brought down from Last Hearth were hardly old enough to shave. "Their spears and axes were older than the hands that clutched them. It was Whoresbane Umber who had the men, inside the castle. I saw them too. Old men, every one." Theon tittered. "Mors took the green boys and Hother took the greybeards. All the real men went with the Greatjon and died at the Red Wedding. Is that what you wanted to know, Your Grace?"
(Theon, TWoW)

That would mean that the men with Whoresbane are expected to die, perhaps gloriously, while the young boys with Crowfood are to be preserved.

Observe how few children, women and young men are present in Winterfell. Old Lord Locke came alone, Lady Flint from Widow's Watch, recently pregnant, stayed at home. Lady Cerwyn is strangely absent, and sent cousins in her stead. The situation of the Tallharts is uncertain, and no member of the family is there. Manderly came without his family. Even his men seem older than they should be.
Four White Harbor knights had formed a ring around Lord Wyman, as Maester Medrick labored over him to staunch his bleeding. “First you must needs come through us, ser,” said the eldest of them, a hard-faced greybeard whose bloodstained surcoat showed three silvery mermaids upon a violet field.
(Theon, ADwD)

Lord Rodrik Ryswell wasn't so prudent: he came with his sons and nephew. Lady Dustin brought Barrowton boys with her.
A battle was being fought in the yard; Ryswells pelting Barrowton boys with snowballs.
When the northern nobility answered Roose Bolton's invitation, a peaceful wedding in Barrowton was in order. There was no danger of a battle with Stannis. The whole court left abruptly Barrowton to attend the wedding in Winterfell.

So the northmen with old men are likely to be the one conspiring again the Boltons.

7. Lord Brynden and the old Gods

Brynden has certainly watched the wedding through the ravens' eyes. Did he play an active role?

Two characters seem to have some symbolic connection with him.

Mance, as King-beyond-the-Wall displayed a gigantic set of elk antlers on his tent, and a pair of ravenwings on his helm. Beside the white furs of snow bears on the tents, these were his only emblems. We noticed that they correspond to Coldhands' animals. And, obviously, Coldhands is Bloodraven's friend and agent.

Bloodraven seems to have an affinity for one-eyed creature. He was rumored to warg a one-eyed dog when he was Bloodraven. Lord Beric Dondarrion, who seems like an avatar of Bloodraven, has lost an eye and used to use weirwood roots as a seat in the cave under the hollow hill. We can suspect that the one-eyed horse that led Val to Tormund was guided by Brynden. That opens the question of the connection between Crowfood and Bloodraven, especially since Crowfood's missing eye has been eaten by a crow and replaced by a prothesis of dragonglass, a material related to the children of the forest, as if Crowfood had been given the fake eye by the children.

There is similarity between the escape and the tale of the Mystery Knight. Without summarizing the story, let's remark that at the end, Daemon Blackfyre II fights the final tilt of the tourney of Whitehalls against Glendon Ball, who just has been tortured. Glendon Ball is given his lance by Dunk, who just has been healed by Maynard Plumm, himself Bloodraven's agent, or perhaps Bloodraven himself. The healing might very well be magical. In any case, Dunk is inspired to give a tourney lance instead of a war lance to Glendon Ball. Contrary to all expectations, Glendon Ball wins the tilt and defeats the rebellion.

Here is a detail of the conversation between Glendon and Dunk.
"A lance?" Blood and spit dribbled from Ser Glendon's mouth when he tried to speak. "Do I have all my fingers?"
"Ten," said Dunk, "but only seven fingernails."
(The Mystery Knight)
The analogy with Theon is striking.
Reek knew the cost. Seven, he thought, seven fingers. A man can make do with seven fingers. Seven is a sacred number.
(Reek II, ADwD)

The main agent is a man with seven fingers. Of course, Glendon has just lost his nails. But it raises the question of whether Theon, just like Glendon, has been Brynden's agent.

The hints of the intervention of Bran are much clearer. Theon hears his name during the wedding, and again the night before the escape, when he recognized Bran's face on the weirwood, and even heard Bran's name. He prayed the old gods for the mercy  of death. And the washerwomen appeared, having heard the prayer, and demanded that Theon fulfill his role first.
Death was the sweetest deliverance he could hope for.
In the godswood the snow was still dissolving as it touched the earth. Steam rose off the hot pools, fragrant with the smell of moss and mud and decay. A warm fog hung in the air, turning the trees into sentinels, tall soldiers shrouded in cloaks of gloom. During daylight hours, the steamy wood was often full of northmen come to pray to the old gods, but at this hour Theon Greyjoy found he had it all to himself.
And in the heart of the wood the weirwood waited with its knowing red eyes. Theon stopped by the edge of the pool and bowed his head before its carved red face. Even here he could hear the drumming, boom DOOM boom DOOM boom DOOM boom DOOM. Like distant thunder, the sound seemed to come from everywhere at once.
The night was windless, the snow drifting straight down out of a cold black sky, yet the leaves of the heart tree were rustling his name. “Theon,” they seemed to whisper, “Theon.”
The old gods, he thought. They know me. They know my name. I was Theon of House Greyjoy. I was a ward of Eddard Stark, a friend and brother to his children. “Please.” He fell to his knees. “A sword, that’s all I ask. Let me die as Theon, not as Reek.” Tears trickled down his cheeks, impossibly warm. “I was ironborn. A son ... a son of Pyke, of the islands.”
A leaf drifted down from above, brushed his brow, and landed in the pool. It floated on the water, red, five-fingered, like a bloody hand. “... Bran,” the tree murmured.
They know. The gods know. They saw what I did. And for one strange moment it seemed as if it were Bran’s face carved into the pale trunk of the weirwood, staring down at him with eyes red and wise and sad. Bran’s ghost, he thought, but that was madness. Why should Bran want to haunt him? He had been fond of the boy, had never done him any harm. It was not Bran we killed. It was not Rickon. They were only miller’s sons, from the mill by the Acorn Water. “I had to have two heads, else they would have mocked me ... laughed at me ... they ...”
A voice said, “Who are you talking to?”
Theon spun, terrified that Ramsay had found him, but it was just the washerwomen—Holly, Rowan, and one whose name he did not know. “The ghosts,” he blurted. “They whisper to me. They ... they know my name.”
“Theon Turncloak.” Rowan grabbed his ear, twisting. “You had to have two heads, did you?” “Elsewise men would have laughed at him,” said Holly.
They do not understand. Theon wrenched free. “What do you want?” he asked.
“You,” said the third washerwoman, an older woman, deep-voiced, with grey streaks in her hair. “I told you. I want to touch you, turncloak.” Holly smiled. In her hand a blade appeared.
I could scream, Theon thought. Someone will hear. The castle is full of armed men. He would be dead before help reached him, to be sure, his blood soaking into the ground to feed the heart tree. And what would be so wrong with that? “Touch me,” he said. “Kill me.” There was more despair than defiance in his voice. “Go on. Do me, the way you did the others. Yellow Dick and the rest. It was you.”
Holly laughed. “How could it be us? We’re women. Teats and cunnies. Here to be fucked, not feared.”
“Did the Bastard hurt you?” Rowan asked. “Chopped off your fingers, did he? Skinned your widdle toes? Knocked your teeth out? Poor lad.” She patted his cheek. “There will be no more o’ that, I promise. You prayed, and the gods sent us. You want to die as Theon? We’ll give you that. A nice quick death, ’twill hardly hurt at all.” She smiled. “But not till you’ve sung for Abel. He’s waiting for you.”
(A Ghost in Winterfell, ADwD)
Theon worried about the benediction of the old gods three times during the escape.
Reek might have done it. Would have done it, in hopes it might please Lord Ramsay. These whores meant to steal Ramsay’s bride; Reek could not allow that. But the old gods had known him, had called him Theon. Ironborn, I was ironborn, Balon Greyjoy’s son and rightful heir to Pyke. The stumps of his fingers itched and twitched, but he kept his dagger in its sheath.
(Theon, ADwD)
Theon stopped so suddenly that Willow almost plowed into his back. The door to Ramsay’s bedchamber was before him. And guarding it were two of the Bastard’s Boys, Sour Alyn and Grunt.
The old gods must wish us well. Grunt had no tongue and Sour Alyn had no wits, Lord Ramsay liked to say. One was brutal, the other mean, but both had spent most of their lives in service at the Dreadfort. They did as they were told.
(Theon, ADwD)
And perhaps the old gods were still watching over them; the drawbridge had been left down, to allow Winterfell’s defenders to cross to and from the outer battlements more quickly.
(Theon, ADwD)
We will look at the old gods separately. Whatever their nature, it seems they helped the escape.

8. The Non-Conspirators

Other northmen are in Winterfell: Flint, Slate, Locke, Stout, Ryswell, Dustin.

Too little is known about Lord Slate to form an opinion on his loyalty. The only hint we have is that the Slate banner is grey on white, like the Stark banner. However, Lord Slate seems to be a petty lord. The important issue might concern the maester of the House, Henly.

The Flints of Flint's Finger are also an unknown proposition. We have no idea of the strength of their ties with the main branch of the family.

Lord Locke is obviously close to Manderly. A Locke, perhaps Lord Ondrew himself, spoke up against Ramsay at the Merman's Court.

“The maid tells it true,” declared a stocky man in white and purple, whose cloak was fastened with a pair of crossed bronze keys. “Roose Bolton’s cold and cunning, aye, but a man can deal with Roose. We’ve all known worse. But this bastard son of his ... they say he’s mad and cruel, a monster.”

(Davos III, ADwD)

Furthermore, the presence of old Ondrew Locke without his family, apparently, is a sign that the old man is ready to die if it needs be.

Lord Stout is Lady Dustin's liege man. He certainly hates Ramsay for his behaviour in Barrowton. Ramsay has enjoyed seeing his bitches kill the old Stout dog in his own hall. Lord Harwood might dislike Roose, who has treated him with condescension the same night. But Harwood Stout is a mere petty lord that counts for little by himself. He might simply be representative of the men who serve Lady Dustin.

The position of the Ryswells is less clear. They appear to follow the daughter of the House, now the powerful widow of Barrowton. Lady Dustin had once been part of her father's great ambitions for the Ryswell family. There is no reason to believe that the relations between Barbrey and Rodrik have taken a turn to the worse. Moreover, Barbrey has put the golden horse of her father on her personal banner. Could there be any stronger indication of the bond between father and daughter? However, Lord Rodrik does not say a single word that we hear in Winterfell. So once again, we need to understand Lady Dustin.

There are three more Ryswells in Winterfell. Roger, Rickard and Roose. By tradition, Roose Bolton is sworn to protect his namesake. We know that Roger and Rickard look alike, and might be twins. The four Ryswells quarrel. The only hint we are given about the quarrel is the choice of colors on the Ryswell banners. The golden horse is for Rodrik. The three other horses are brown, grey and black. The colors are personal banners. Grey is the Stark color. No field is indicated for the banners. Is white the color of the field by default? The Stark colors come up often in Winterfell. No northman choose it by accident. We can suspect that one of the Ryswell is loyal to the Starks, and that the quarrel is about that loyalty. That makes for meager evidence of a Stark loyalist among the Ryswells. Roger seems to be leading the Ryswells in Winterfell, and seems on good terms with his sister. So I imagine the grey Ryswell is Rickard or Roose.

Under all appearances Lady Dustin wishes to bury the Starks. It is certain that Roose trust her, while he mistrusts the Umbers, Manderly etc. He put Theon and "Arya" in Lady Dustin's care, and gave her thus the means to sabotage the wedding. And Barbrey did nothing but organize diligently the wedding. She might have other plans than supporting Roose all along, but she doesn't seem to be conspirating with Crowfood etc.

However, Barbrey's disappearance on the day of the escape is one of the main unsolved mysteries of the Winterfell Huis Clos.

9. The Conspirators and Stannis

Stannis has little knowledge of what is going on inside Winterfell.

But are there contacts between the northmen around Stannis and the conspirators?

There a maester at Deepwood Motte. I suppose Stannis is aware of all raven correspondence that arrived there before he left Deepwood Motte. Some messages have reached Deepwood after his departure, for instance Jon Snow's letter that warned of the Karstark betrayal. We know that Manderly doesn't trust his maester. The Hornwood, Cerwyn and Slate maesters are with Roose. Crowfood has no maester with him under all appearances. So I hardly see how any significant message could have reached Deepwood Motte after Stannis' departure.

He doesn't even know that Crowfood is "besieging" the castle. Crowfood has not given any information to Stannis about his forces. Whoresbane has not warned Stannis of the imminent Karstark betrayal. Both Umber could have sent an emissary to Stannis.

Nevertheless, Crowfood, after submitting "Arya" to his test, let her go to Stannis with Theon. I tend to believe that Crowfood knew "Arya" was an imposter, and that he let her go for that reason.

If Robett Glover is part of the conspiracy, there is a sign that some men with Stannis will answer to him.

The army covered twenty-two miles the first day, by the reckoning of the guides Lady Sybelle had given them, trackers and hunters sworn to Deepwood with clan names like Forrester and Woods, Branch and Bole.
(The King's Prize, ADwD)
“He’s not wrong,” grumbled Ned Woods, one of the scouts from Deepwood. Noseless Ned, he was called; frostbite had claimed the tip of his nose two winters past. Woods knew the wolfwood as well as any man alive. Even the king’s proudest lords had learned to listen when he spoke.
(The Sacrifice, ADwD)

Ned Woods si sworn to Deepwood and knew the wolfwood as well as any man alive. Such a man could prove precious.

10. The Conspiracy beyond the Escape

Mance might have accomplish the escape of the bride just to please Melisandre – however I think his presence in Winterfell is about the Horn of Winter.

It seems that the idea of saving Arya Stark from the Boltons came from Mance. Indeed, Mance has realized that Jon Snow is dismayed by the wedding. Just after the fight between "Rattleshirt" and Jon, here is the reaction of Jon Snow after receiving the announce of the marriage (Rattleshirt is still present):
Jon saw no reason not to tell him. “Moat Cailin is taken. The flayed corpses of the ironmen have been nailed to posts along the kingsroad. Roose Bolton summons all leal lords to Barrowton, to affirm their loyalty to the Iron Throne and celebrate his son’s wedding to ...” His heart seemed to stop for a moment. No, that is not possible. She died in King’s Landing, with Father.
“Lord Snow?” Clydas peered at him closely with his dim pink eyes. “Are you ... unwell? You seem ...”
“He’s to marry Arya Stark. My little sister.” Jon could almost see her in that moment, long-faced and gawky, all knobby knees and sharp elbows, with her dirty face and tangled hair. They would wash the one and comb the other, he did not doubt, but he could not imagine Arya in a wedding gown, nor Ramsay Bolton’s bed. No matter how afraid she is, she will not show it. If he tries to lay a hand on her, she’ll fight him.
“Your sister,” Iron Emmett said, “how old is ...”
By now she’d be eleven, Jon thought. Still a child. “I have no sister. Only brothers. Only you.” Lady Catelyn would have rejoiced to hear those words, he knew. That did not make them easier to say. His fingers closed around the parchment. Would that they could crush Ramsay Bolton’s throat as easily.
Clydas cleared his throat. “Will there be an answer?”
Jon shook his head and walked away.
(Jon VI, ADwD)

I suppose that Mance reported the scene to Melisandre. But, unless Mance subtly manipulated her, it seems that Melisandre suggested the rescue.
She was racing to him for protection, that much Melisandre had seen clearly. “I have seen her in my flames, but only once. We must win the lord commander’s trust, and the only way to do that is to save her.”
“Me save her, you mean? The Lord o’ Bones?” He laughed. “No one ever trusted Rattleshirt but fools. Snow’s not that. If his sister needs saving, he’ll send his crows. I would.”
(Melisandre, ADwD)

Let's turn to the northmen.

If Crowfood, among others, is involved in the escape, there is certainly a political project coming with the Winterfell ploy. Most probably the project is a Stark restoration, since we are told many times that northmen love the Starks. Lady Dustin:
“Dressing her in grey and white serves no good if the girl is left to sob. The Freys may not care, but the northmen ... they fear the Dreadfort, but they love the Starks.”
(The Turncloak, ADwD)
Theon reflects the night before the escape.
The castle was too crowded to withstand a long siege, and too many of the lords here were of uncertain loyalty. Fat Wyman Manderly, Whoresbane Umber, the men of House Hornwood and House Tallhart, the Lockes and Flints and Ryswells, all of them were northmen, sworn to House Stark for generations beyond count. It was the girl who held them here, Lord Eddard’s blood, but the girl was just a mummer’s ploy, a lamb in a direwolf’s skin.
(A Ghost in Winterfell, ADwD)
Barbrey Dustin gives an evalutation of the political situation during the Winterfell Feast.
“Truth be told,” she said, “Lord Bolton aspires to more than mere lordship. Why not King of the North? Tywin Lannister is dead, the Kingslayer is maimed, the Imp is fled. The Lannisters are a spent force, and you were kind enough to rid him of the Starks. Old Walder Frey will not object to his fat little Walda becoming a queen. White Harbor might prove troublesome should Lord Wyman survive this coming battle ... but I am quite sure that he will not. No more than Stannis. Roose will remove both of them, as he removed the Young Wolf. Who else is there?”
“You,” said Theon. “There is you. The Lady of Barrowton, a Dustin by marriage, a Ryswell by birth.”
That pleased her. She took a sip of wine, her dark eyes sparkling, and said, “The widow of Barrowton ... and yes, if I so choose, I could be an inconvenience. Of course, Roose sees that too, so he takes care to keep me sweet.”
(The Prince of Winterfell, ADwD)

This seems all accurate. So the main player among the conspirators is Wyman Manderly. His political weight seems equal to his physical weight. He should be at the center of any conspiracy with reasonable political prospects. We saw already that Manderly has raised men, that he is (perhaps incomparably) richer than any other northman and that only a small part of his forces are with him in Winterfell.

There are a few indecisive hints that Manderly is allied with Crowfood. Manderly's political project has been explained plainly to Davos.
“Roose Bolton has Lord Eddard’s daughter. To thwart him White Harbor must have Ned’s son ... and the direwolf. The wolf will prove the boy is who we say he is, should the Dreadfort attempt to deny him. That is my price, Lord Davos. Smuggle me back my liege lord, and I will take Stannis Baratheon as my king.”
(Davos IV, ADwD)

The liege lord is Rickon Stark. Of course it is curious that Manderly forgets about Bran. Is it because Bran is crippled? Is it because Manderly is content with having a Stark heir ahead of Arya in the order of succession? Is it because Rickon is the only Stark he can hope to recover, given the circumstances.

The disappearance of "Arya" from the Bolton's control goes along well with Manderly understanding that the Bolton's strength resides in having the Stark heir. However, if Manderly had Rickon, there is no need to make "Arya" disappear.

Robett Glover has a slightly different view from Manderly, it seems.
Robett Glover broke in to add, “Your loyalty does you honor, my lord, but Stannis Baratheon remains your king, not our own.”
(Davos IV, ADwD)

There is no certainty that Crowfood would follow Manderly's plan. But is seems likely that he would accept gladly Rickon, especially if he had a direwolf. Recall the moment the Greatjon accepted Robb as his commander.
And when Lord Umber, who was called the Greatjon by his men and stood as tall as Hodor and twice as wide, threatened to take his forces home if he was placed behind the Hornwoods or the Cerwyns in the order of march, Robb told him he was welcome to do so. “And when we are done with the Lannisters,” he promised, scratching Grey Wind behind the ear, “we will march back north, root you out of your keep, and hang you for an oathbreaker.” Cursing, the Greatjon flung a flagon of ale into the fire and bellowed that Robb was so green he must piss grass. When Hallis Mollen moved to restrain him, he knocked him to the floor, kicked over a table, and unsheathed the biggest, ugliest greatsword that Bran had ever seen. All along the benches, his sons and brothers and sworn swords leapt to their feet, grabbing for their steel.
Yet Robb only said a quiet word, and in a snarl and the blink of an eye Lord Umber was on his back, his sword spinning on the floor three feet away and his hand dripping blood where Grey Wind had bitten off two fingers. “My lord father taught me that it was death to bare steel against your liege lord,” Robb said, “but doubtless you only meant to cut my meat.” Bran’s bowels went to water as the Greatjon struggled to rise, sucking at the red stumps of fingers... but then, astonishingly, the huge man laughed. “Your meat,” he roared, “is bloody tough. “
(Bran VI, AGoT)
Later the Greatjon would become the right hand of the Young Wolf.
The Greatjon’s been heard to say that the old gods of the north sent those direwolves to your children.
(Catelyn V, ACoK)
However, it is certain that the Greatjon wouldn't accept Stannis as his king gladly.
“Renly Baratheon is nothing to me, nor Stannis neither. Why should they rule over me and mine, from some flowery seat in Highgarden or Dorne? What do they know of the Wall or the wolfswood or the barrows of the First Men? Even their gods are wrong. The Others take the Lannisters too, I’ve had a bellyful of them.” He reached back over his shoulder and drew his immense two-handed greatsword. “Why shouldn’t we rule ourselves again? It was the dragons we married, and the dragons are all dead!” He pointed at Robb with the blade. “There sits the only king I mean to bow my knee to, m’lords,” he thundered. “The King in the North!”
(Catelyn XI, AGoT)

Perhaps, Stannis seated in the Nightfort, defending the realm against the horrors beyond the Wall, might eventually please most northmen. But we are not there yet.

So it seems that Manderly sees the Stark in Winterfell as his liege lord, but as part of the Seven Kingdoms. But other northmen might disagree.

There is another candidate for the title of King in the north. Jon Snow has been named heir of Robb Stark. But the knowledge of Robb's will might be limited to the northmen and rivermen who attended the signing of the will: Jason Mallister, Galbart Glover, Maege Mormont, Greatjon Umber, Edmure Tully, as Lords. And Wendel Manderly, Robin Flint, Donnel Locke, Lucas Blackwood, Raynald Westerling, Marq Piper, Lymond Goodbrook, young Vances as additional noblemen.

Maege Mormont and Galbart Glover has disappeared in the Neck. The Greatjon is prisoner at the Twins. Jason Mallister is prisoner at Seagard. Edmure Tully is prisoner of the Lannisters (and might know that Jeyne Westerling is pregnant). Raynald Westerling is probably dead. The others are dead.

The will might reappear through Maege Mormont and Galbart Glover. However, they might have met Howland Reed, who could have discouraged them to give the crown to Jon Snow.

The existence of the will is never alluded to in ADwD, except perhaps in the letter of Lyanna Mormont reported by Stannis.
Bear Island knows no king but the King in the North, whose name is STARK. A girl of ten, you say, and she presumes to scold her lawful king.”
(Jon IV, ADwD)

It's not clear whether Lyanna could have received news from her mother and when. It would be surprising that she went with the Young Wolf, given her age. The only indication we have comes from Alysane Mormont.
“Sisters,” Alysane Mormont replied, gruff as ever. “Five, we were. All girls. Lyanna is back on Bear Island. Lyra and Jory are with our mother. Dacey was murdered.”
(The King's Prize, ADwD)

It seems to indicate that Lyanna and Alysane were with Maege up to a point. When did they leave their mother's company? Have they been told about the will? In any case, their word alone shouldn't carry enough weight to convince the whole north about the reality of the will. At minimum, the document itself or the presence of a few of the lords that attended the signature is required for the will to be taken seriously. The document might reappear with the Freys.

And even then, those who want to put the will into application would need to be politically dominant. Witness what happened to Robert Baratheon's will.
The queen glanced at the words. “Protector of the Realm,” she read. “Is this meant to be your shield, my lord? A piece of paper?” She ripped the letter in half, ripped the halves in quarters, and let the pieces flutter to the floor.
“Those were the king’s words,” Ser Barristan said, shocked.
(Eddard XIV, AGoT)

However, Alysane might have the private knowledge that Jon Snow has been named heir. Stannis sends her to the Wall with "Arya".
"The black brothers will accompany you as far as Castle Black," the king went on. "The ironmen are to remain here, supposedly to fight for us.  Another gift from Tycho Nestoris. Just as well, they would only slow you down. Ironmen were made for ships, not horses. Lady Arya should have a female companion as well. Take Alysane Mormont."
(Theon, TWoW)

If the news of the will reached Bear Island, why not send a raven to Jon Snow? Why not send Alysane Mormont to inform him?

There is no sign that the northmen in Winterfell has heard about the will. There is no sign that Manderly, the Umbers, the Glovers have made a single move to install Jon Snow as the new king. Not even an approach via an emissary. Not even an observer sent to the Wall. Unless the Norrey and Old Flint are there for this purpose. (Why them? What is their legitimacy?)

There is even a sign that people around Manderly don't want to consider Jon Snow.
“The evil is in his blood,” said Robett Glover. “He is a bastard born of rape. A Snow, no matter what the boy king says.”
(Davos IV, ADwD)
Of course, this is Ramsay. But the reasoning applies.

Another Stark heir is waiting: Sansa Stark. However, only Peter Baelish seems to know where she is. There are no reason to believe the northmen have heard about her whereabouts.

That leaves Rickon, and several monthes have elapsed since Davos has been sent to Skagos. Regardless of the loyalty of Manderly to the Stark, installing Rickon has the Lord of Winterfell would put House Manderly in the best position it has enjoyed since it left the banks of the Mander. It's likely that Wyman, or Wylis, will be regent, if Rickon is restored as king in the north, or simply lord of Winterfell. Wyman might hope to marry Wylis' daughter Wylla to Rickon, and join their line with the Starks. Whether Rickon's wild nature will be pliable enough is an open question, even leaving aside the story in Skagos, which might have left a mark on the young Stark.

The Winterfell Huis Clos