The Winterfell Huis Clos


Here is one of the most thought-provoking observations I came across in the books.
It all goes back and back, Tyrion thought, to our mothers and fathers and theirs before them. We are puppets dancing on the strings of those who came before us, and one day our own children will take up our strings and dance on in our steads.
(Tyrion VII, ASoS)
It appears progressively that congregations of undying might be the real puppetmasters.

The Mystery Knight is a story comparable to the Winterfell Huis Clos. A wedding and a tourney provide the setting for another episode of the Blackfyre Rebellion. In reality, Bloodraven and Bittersteel play a game against each other, by subtly manipulating their agents.

The game of Cyvasse is often mentioned in ADwD and AFfC. It originates from Volantis and has been adopted in Dorne, in the Free Cities, and in Slaver's Bay. The metaphor is easily recognizable. The Mystery Knight is a game of Cyvasse between Bloodraven and Bittersteel. Let's examine the Huis Clos under this angle.

  1. The Whispers
  2. Brynden's sanctuary
  3. The Rivals
  4. Brynden Rivers
  5. Aegor Rivers
  6. The Winterfell Board

1. The Whispers

Once there were many caves of the children of the forest in Westeros. I imagine the typical configuration to be a hollow hill, with a grove of weirwoods on top, and a burial site inside the hill. Consider the story of Clarence Crabb at the Whispers.
“His wife was a woods witch. Whenever Ser Clarence killed a man, he’d fetch his head back home and his wife would kiss it on the lips and bring it back t’ life. Lords, they were, and wizards, and famous knights and pirates. One was king o’ Duskendale. They gave old Crabb good counsel. Being they was just heads, they couldn’t talk real loud, but they never shut up neither. When you’re a head, talking’s all you got to pass the day. So Crabb’s keep got named the Whispers. Still is, though it’s been a ruin for a thousand years. A lonely place, the Whispers.”
(Brienne, AFfC)
Here is what the Whispers have become.
The yard was all weeds and pine needles. Soldier pines were everywhere, drawn up in solemn ranks. In their midst was a pale stranger; a slender young weirwood with a trunk as white as a cloistered maid. Dark red leaves sprouted from its reaching branches.
(Brienne, AFfC)
And at the bottom of the cliff.
Fifty feet below, the waves were swirling in and over the remnants of a shattered tower. Behind it, she glimpsed the mouth of a large cavern.
(Brienne, AFfC)

The weirwood is a young tree. But we are left to believe that there are roots of older weirwoods below the keep from which the younger tree sprouted. Once the place conformed to the model of Lord Brynden's cave. Clarence Crabb might have been the greenseer of the place. The other heads were buried down there and they shared their memories and perhaps their wisdom with Clarence Crabb, just like the skulls below the Cave, the children, the men, the giants, the wolf, the bear, are still in communion with Lord Brynden.

“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)

I am puzzled by the slain enemies of Clarence who become advisors in the afterlife. Note that Clarence Crabb was riding an auroch. It reminds me of the green men who rode elks. (Before the First Men, no horse has been seen in Westeros.)

Thanks to the weirwoods, the minds of the dead can gather, form a community and influence the course of events from the shadows, becoming eventually a lesser divinity. This principle led to the caves of the children of the forest. To what extent the deity thus conceived coincides with the old gods is open for debate.

I am inclined to believe that Westeros, in the time of the children, in the time of the First Men, was ruled by congregations of dead people under the trees. What remains of all this is unclear.

It's likely that many more such sanctuaries existed once in Westeros. Here are a few examples worthy of discussion: Seadragon Point, High Heart, The Wolf's Den (impressive weirwood, and dungeons underground), Raventree hall (dead weirwood, and Blackwoods buried under the tree), The Great Barrow (no more trees, but a hill and a legendary grave), Visenya Hill (many things under the Sept of Baelor, the sparrows gather the bones of the dead on the hill), The Quiet Isle (cavern of the hermit), Harrenhal's godswood, Aegon's Hill (many sorts of cells under the castle, and a collection of dragon skulls).

Beyond the Narrow Sea, two places seem to function on the same basis:
They would surely deserve an in-depth discussion. Perhaps, there is something similar in Vaes Dothrak.

In Westeros, such sanctuaries seems to be or to have been caves of the children of the forest. I guess most of them were destroyed either during the first conflict between the children of the forest and the first men, or after the arrival of the Andals. Both waves of invaders made a point of burning or cutting down the trees. I suppose they felt threatened by the power of the trees.

One can wonder whether Winterfell was once the residence of the children of the forests, and if there are greenseers buried deep in the crypts. If Bran's last vision indeed depicts the foundation of Winterfell, in the sense of the awakening of the weirwood with a face, we see no children of the forest. So Winterfell might have always been a purely human place. I am not sure we will have the privilege to visit the bottom of the crypts, and to know for certain.

2. Brynden's sanctuary

The lair of the Brotherhood without Banners under the Hollow Hill seems like a former cave of the Children of the Forest. Moreover, Lord Beric recalls strikingly Lord Brynden.The place could be under High Heart. (Indeed Arya and Gendry are blindfolded when they are guided to the cave. It could be that they just have run in circle and been tricked into believing having covered much distance.)

The next day they rode to a place called High Heart, a hill so lofty that from atop it Arya felt as though she could see half the world. Around its brow stood a ring of huge pale stumps, all that remained of a circle of once-mighty weirwoods. Arya and Gendry walked around the hill to count them. There were thirty-one, some so wide that she could have used them for a bed.
High Heart had been sacred to the children of the forest, Tom Sevenstrings told her, and some of their magic lingered here still. “No harm can ever come to those as sleep here,” the singer said. Arya thought that must be true; the hill was so high and the surrounding lands so flat that no enemy could approach unseen.

(Arya IV, ASoS)

Here is the appearance of Beric.

In one place on the far side of the fire, the roots formed a kind of stairway up to a hollow in the earth where a man sat almost lost in the tangle of weirwood.

(Arya V, ASoS)

“When we left King’s Landing we were men of Winterfell and men of Darry and men of Blackhaven, Mallery men and Wylde men. We were knights and squires and men-at-arms, lords and commoners, bound together only by our purpose.” The voice came from the man seated amongst the weirwood roots halfway up the wall. “Six score of us set out to bring the king’s justice to your brother.” The speaker was descending the tangle of steps toward the floor. “Six score brave men and true, led by a fool in a starry cloak.” A scarecrow of a man, he wore a ragged black cloak speckled with stars and an iron breastplate dinted by a hundred battles. A thicket of red-gold hair hid most of his face, save for a bald spot above his left ear where his head had been smashed in. “More than eighty of our company are dead now, but others have taken up the swords that fell from their hands.” When he reached the floor, the outlaws moved aside to let him pass. One of his eyes was gone, Arya saw, the flesh about the socket scarred and puckered, and he had a dark black ring all around his neck. “With their help, we fight on as best we can, for Robert and the realm.”

(Arya V, ASoS)

The entanglement in the weirwood roots and the missing eye (and the ragged black cloak, though not the stars) are all hallmarks of Lord Brynden.

But, the cave of Lord Brynden has a feature we didn't see under the Hollow Hill.

“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 subsequently learnt that the memories of the dead, and the living greenseers, go into the tree.

It seems customary to bury the deceased under the heart tree. This is the Stark custom. The Boltons bury their dead under the Dreadfort. The Blackwoods bury theirs under their (dead) heart tree. Intestingly, Roose Bolton insists of burning Yellow Dick in Winterfell, rather than burying his man in the lichyard.

The fact that Bran opens his third eye while he is in the crypt is another hint of the similarity between Winterfell and Brynden's cave.

3. The Rivals

We already examined the enmity between the Blackwoods and Brackens, which seems to have taken roots in the ancient antagonism between certain horse loving first men and the children of the forest who were reincarnated into ravens. We stressed the parallel between the Ryswells and the Brackens.

The enmity apparently played a role in the Blackfyre rebellion.

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: red horse on golden field. The wings and the fire recall the Targaryen heritage. Though fire was also a hallmark of the First Men who once burned the heart trees.

So the Blackfyre Rebellion was, at least partly, driven by the ancient antagonism between horses and ravens that we put in evidence elsewhere.

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, very much like Clarence Crabb.

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, watching and acting. The fact that the Golden Company has endured and followed the precepts of its founder is a testimony that Bittersteel is able 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 protection, 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.

4. Brynden's agency

The enmity between Bittersteel and Bloodraven may be as alive as ever. Indeed, Bloodraven still remembers his siblings.

“He heard a whisper on the wind, a rustling amongst the leaves. You cannot speak to him, try as you might. I know. I have my own ghosts, Bran. A brother that I loved, a brother that I hated, a woman I desired. Through the trees, I see them still, but no word of mine has ever reached them. The past remains the past. We can learn from it, but we cannot change it.”

(Bran III, ADwD)

He speaks of his brothers in the past tense.

It's certain that Brynden is watching over Westeros, through the trees, through the ravens and other animals.

Certainly Lord Brynden has watched the recent events in Winterfell. Bran has access to the Winterfell weirwood, that Brynden did not have access to previously, I believe.

The massive presence of the ravens during the wedding would indicates that Brynden was watching at that time. That seems to go along well with the notion that Bloodraven himself can't see through the Winterfell weirwood, otherwise why use ravens? And why ask Bran what he sees.

“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)

And after Bran's first vision, Leaf asked him.

Tell us what you saw.” From far away Leaf looked almost a girl, no older than Bran or one of his sisters, but close at hand she seemed far older. She claimed to have seen two hundred years.

(Bran III, ADwD)

So it appears that Bloodraven and the Children of the Forest all want to access Winterfell's weirwood.  It's possible that Winterfell has been warded somehow, and the story of Bran the builder putting the first stone is about warding. (Just like the Wall, supposedly built by the same Brandon, prevents communication between Ghost and Jon Snow.)

In any case, it appears that Bran's coming to Bloodraven's side might put the Winterfell godswood in Brynden's sphere of influence.

Winterfell does not seem to have ever interfered in the Blackfyre rebellions.

Are some of the Winterfell characters under Bloodraven's influence?

In some sense, both Mance and Crowfood seem related to Brynden. As King-beyond-the-Wall, Mance displayed the raven wings on his helm and the impressive antlers of a giant elk on his tent. Elks and ravens are precisely the animals attached to Coldhands, Brynden's friend and agent. Crowfood shares with Brynden a missing eye. And in the days he was called Bloodraven, Brynden was known to warg one-eyed dogs. We can suspect that Brynden guided the one-eyed horse that led Val to Tormund. So it wouldn't be surprising if there were a connection with one-eyed Crowfood as well, especially since Crowfood's eyeball is a ball of dragonglass, a material once provided to the Night's Watch by the children of the forest.

I am tempted to relate another character to Bloodraven: his kinsman Big Walder, grandson of Walder Frey's fourth wife, a Blackwood. Big Walder remains an enigmatic character for me, and I can't find any reason to believe that he has been Brynden's agent.

5. Aegor's agency

We surmised that Bittersteel is just as alive and watching as Bloodraven is. Just like the wedding in The Mystery Knight, the Winterfell wedding might be an opportunity for the Great Bastards to fight their battle by proxy. So the threat of the hegemony of Bloodraven extending to the godswood might be countered by something from those who still follow the dream of Bittersteel.

Rodrik Ryswell and Barbrey Dustin might be among them.

The first indication resides in the cultural proximity between the Ryswells and the Bracken – Bittersteel's mother was a Bracken. The red horse of the Brackens was part of Bittersteel's personal banner. Similarly the Ryswells adore horses, they display four horses on their banners in Winterfell. It's possible that the strange banner seen by Melisandre in Barrowton refers to Bittersteel.

The red priestess slid closer to the king. “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)

The meaning of the horse’s head with fiery eyes is not clear. It seems close to Bittersteel's personal banner (a winged horse breathing fire). Even more mysterious is the reason why the Ryswells switched to four banners after the Barrowton meeting seen by Melisandre in her flames.

A second indication resides in the particular colors chosen by the Ryswells at the wedding. Four horses: black, brown, gold and grey. The gold horse belongs to Lord Rodrik Ryswell. It has been adopted by Lady Dustin on her personal banner. Gold is uncommon in the north. (It's not used as currency, and rarely used as jewelry. White Harbor is famed for his silversmiths. The Stark treasure taken by "Reek" was made of silver.) So putting gold on the banner seems to indicate a non-northern influence. Lady Dustin even puts the golden horse under a crown on her personal banner.

Four horseheads proclaimed the four Ryswells of the Rills—one grey, one black, one gold, one brown. The jape was that the Ryswells could not even agree upon the color of their arms. Above them streamed the stag-and-lion of the boy who sat upon the Iron Throne a thousand leagues away.
Reek listened to the vanes turning on the old windmill as they rode beneath the gatehouse into a grassy courtyard where stableboys ran out to take their horses. “This way, if you please.” Lord Bolton led him toward the keep, where the banners were those of the late Lord Dustin and his widowed wife. His showed a spiked crown above crossed longaxes; hers quartered those same arms with Rodrik Ryswell’s golden horsehead.

(Reek III, ADwD)

Of course, gold reminds us of the Golden Company. And the banner of John the Fiddler displayed golden fiddles.

Across his chest an engrailed cross had been embroidered in gold thread, with a golden fiddle in the first and third quarters, a golden sword in the second and the fourth.
(The Mystery Knight)

Two little points deserve more attention. Barbrey Dustin told Theon that her father had great ambitions for his family. Of course the ambitions included marrying Barbrey to a Stark. Is that all? Barbrey would end up marrying Lord Dustin, whose great-uncle had fought for in the War of the Ninepenny Kings (but on which side?).

The evidence is thin, but I am intrigued by the notion that the Dustin/Ryswells are part of the movement to put Aegon sixth of the name on the Iron Throne. 

The first great stronghold taken by the Golden Company on its return to Westeros is Storm's End, whose godswood had providentially been put to the torch on Melisandre's insistence. Whether the absence of godswood in Storm's End has any importance remains to be seen.

6. The Winterfell godswood

The control of the godswood might be at stakes between Bittersteel and Bloodraven.

Let's return to the rivalry between the Brackens and the Blackwoods, and to an essential episode in the rivalry:

Through their thick, diamond-shaped panes of yellow glass Jaime glimpsed the gnarled limbs of the tree from which the castle took its name. It was a weirwood ancient and colossal, ten times the size of the one in the Stone Garden at Casterly Rock. This tree was bare and dead, though.
“The Brackens poisoned it,” said his host. “For a thousand years it has not shown a leaf. In another thousand it will have turned to stone, the maesters say. Weirwoods never rot.”
(Jaime, ADwD)

The Brackens poisoned the weirwood. I wonder how one can poison a tree, especially a weirwood? Perhaps the maesters have this type of knowledge, since they are rumored to have conspired for the poisoning the dragons of the Targaryens, and have knowledge of poison, in any case.

Lord Blackwood tells us that maesters are knowledgeable about weirwoods. The notion that such trees turn to stone and never rot seems to come from them.

The young Hoster Blackwood said that the Bracken maesters and the Blackwood maesters have divergent views on history. Hence it seems that those two houses like to send their sons to the Citadel. Lady Dustin likes to play a little game with maesters.
And isn’t it clever how the maesters go by only one name, even those who had two when they first arrived at the Citadel? That way we cannot know who they truly are or where they come from ... but if you are dogged enough, you can still find out.
(The Prince of Winterfell, ADwD)
There are three maesters at Winterfell with Roose.
Before the war, Medrick had served Lord Hornwood, Rhodry Lord Cerwyn, and young Henly Lord Slate.
(The Prince of Winterfell, ADwD)

The maesters will be examined elsewhere. But let's try to play Lady Dustin's game. We guess that Maester Tybald is a westerman, perhaps a Lannister, since his name has "Ty" as a prefix. I have tried to look at names similar to Henly. I could find two Henlys at the Wall, and a certain Hendry Bracken, nephew to the lord of the Stone Hedge. Hardly evidence enough to prove that Henly is related to the Brackens – but it would interesting if Hendry were a Bracken.

If the analogy holds between the  Blackwoods/Brackens and Starks/Ryswells, we can expect that Winterfell's godswood might be of interest to the Ryswells. Here is the evolution of the godswood throughout the Winterfell chapters.
It was warmer in the godswood, strange to say. Beyond its confines, a hard white frost gripped Winterfell. The paths were treacherous with black ice, and hoarfrost sparkled in the moonlight on the broken panes of the Glass Gardens. Drifts of dirty snow had piled up against the walls, filling every nook and corner. Some were so high they hid the doors behind them. Under the snow lay grey ash and cinders, and here and there a blackened beam or a pile of bones adorned with scraps of skin and hair. Icicles long as lances hung from the battlements and fringed the towers like an old man’s stiff white whiskers. But inside the godswood, the ground remained unfrozen, and steam rose off the hot pools, as warm as baby’s breath.
(The Prince of Winterfell, ADwD)
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.
A thin film of ice covered the surface of the pool beneath the weirwood.
(The Turncloak, ADwD)
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.
(A Ghost in Winterfell, ADwD)
Even the godswood was turning white. A film of ice had formed upon the pool beneath the heart tree, and the face carved into its pale trunk had grown a mustache of little icicles.
(Theon, ADwD)

The wood seems to be conceding in its resistance to Winter, as if it were losing its vitality. That interpretation is debatable: The evolution of the godswood might simply be due to the increasing severity of the storm, or the accumulation of snow. Or one might object that the hot pools are the only reason for the warmth in the godswood, and it might be that the pools are failing and that the heart tree is unaffected. But the weirwood face has lost its lively expression, it seems.

In any case, the parallel between Raventree Hall and Winterfell is striking. (Again we need to keep in mind that the Jaime chapter is inserted at the middle point between the last two Winterfell chapters.)

So have the Ryswells poisoned the Winterfell heart tree? It would suit Lady Dustin to leave Ramsay the lordship of Winterfell, when the place is dead and worthless.

The Winterfell Huis Clos