“I am a direwolf, and done with wooden teeth.”
“It is wolves I mean to hunt. I can scarcely sleep at night for the howling.”
SPOILER WARNING: This chapter analysis, and all following, will contain spoilers for all Song of Ice and Fire novels and Game of Thrones episodes. Caveat lector.
For my money, Arya X is the best character arc-ending chapter in the book, and may well be the best Arya chapter in ACOK. On this re-read especially, I found myself astonished at how much work this chapter has to do. This one chapter contains the totality of Arya’s interactions with Roose Bolton (which I had quite forgotten, because their relationship seems to be so much longer in duration in my memory). This chapter is also the major setup chapter for the Red Wedding (at least from Roose Bolton and the Freys’ side). And in addition, this chapter also has to get Arya out of Harrenhal and set up her ASOS plot arc, while providing a satisfying conclusion for her thematic arc in ACOK.
The (Strange) Fruits of Her Labors
The chapter begins with a brutal subversion of Arya’s big moment from last chapter. Arya helped to capture Harrenhal for the Starks (even if Vargo Hoat was going to sell it out anyway), and this is the result of her work:
Tothmure had been sent to the axe for dispatching birds to Casterly Rock and King’s Landing the night Harrenhal had fallen, Lucan the armorer for making weapons for the Lannisters, Goodwife Harra for telling Lady Whent’s household to serve them, the steward for giving Lord Tywin the keys to the treasure vault. The cook was spared (some said because he’d made the weasel soup), but stocks were hammered together for pretty Pia and the other women who’d shared their favors with Lannister soldiers. Stripped and shaved, they were left in the middle ward beside the bear pit, free for the use of any man who wanted them.
Three Frey men-at-arms were using them that morning as Arya went to the well. She tried not to look, but she could hear the men laughing. The pail was very heavy once full. She was turning to bring it back to Kingspyre when Goodwife Amabel seized her arm. The water went sloshing over the side onto Amabel’s legs. “You did that on purpose,” the woman screeched.
These hideous reprisal killings and rapes are, to me, the thematic beginning of A Storm of Swords. Well before Jaime and Brienne stumble across the tavern wenches who “lay with lions,” well before Arya encounters the Brotherhood Without Banners, here we see in full detail how the war in the Riverlands has become a war of all-against-all that saves its worst for the hapless smallfolk caught in the crossfire between Stark and Lannister, and the worst of the worst for women. And this horror is being carried out by Stark bannermen, after two books where we have thought of the Starks as the unambiguous good guys. And as with “they lay with lions,” there is a brutal illogic to these war crimes – neither Tothmure, Lucan, Harra, or any of the others had much choice in whether they would serve the Lannisters, any more than the survivors had a choice to serve the Boltons and the Brave Companions (as we’ll see later).
Arya’s responsibility for these war crimes gets called out immediately:
“See there?” Amabel pointed across the yard at Pia. “When this northman falls you’ll be where she is.”
“Let me go.” She tried to wrench free, but Amabel only tightened her fingers.
“He will fall too, Harrenhal pulls them all down in the end. Lord Tywin’s won now, he’ll be marching back with all his power, and then it will be his turn to punish the disloyal. And don’t think he won’t know what you did!” The old woman laughed. “I may have a turn at you myself. Harra had an old broom, I’ll save it for you. The handle’s cracked and splintery—”
“…You think you’re safe with that little bloody man on your teat, but you’re not! The Lannisters are coming! See what happens when they get here.”
Amabel’s sadism, penchant for threats of sexual violence, and vaguely Lovecraftian allegiance to the Lannisters doesn’t make her the best advocate for this argument, but it is interesting to see how quickly news of the Battle of Blackwater has spread both geographically and down the class ladder. Gendry, on the other hand, makes a far better lawyer for the prosecution:
… “Admiring your work?” he asked.
He was angry because he’d liked Lucan, she knew, but it still wasn’t fair. “It’s Steelshanks Walton’s work,” she said defensively. “And the Mummers, and Lord Bolton.”
“And who gave us all them? You and your weasel soup.”
Arya punched his arm. “It was just hot broth. You hated Ser Amory too.”
“I hate this lot worse. Ser Amory was fighting for his lord, but the Mummers are sellswords and turncloaks. Half of them can’t even speak the Common Tongue. Septon Utt likes little boys, Qyburn does black magic, and your friend Biter eats people.”
The worst thing was, she couldn’t even say he was wrong. The Brave Companions did most of the foraging for Harrenhal, and Roose Bolton had given them the task of rooting out Lannisters. Vargo Hoat had divided them into four bands, to visit as many villages as possible. He led the largest group himself, and gave the others to his most trusted captains. She had heard Rorge laughing over Lord Vargo’s way of finding traitors. All he did was return to places he had visited before under Lord Tywin’s banner and seize those who had helped him.
Gendry strikes right at the heart of the issue – Arya acted as a partisan of House Stark, assuming the same moral superiority of her side that we the readers have, up until this point. And the result was that Harrenhal fell, not to Robett Glover or Smalljon Umber, but Roose Bolton, who in turn has given the run of the place to the Bloody Mummers. And in this speech, Gendry points out that the Bloody Mummers are hyperbolically evil on both an individual level – Utt’s a pedophile, Qyburn is Westeros’ answer to Joseph Mengele, and Biter’s a damn cannibal (reading that sentence, I really wonder…how did Gendry know this? Pure rumor, or did Biter eat someone in the fallout of the capture of Harrenhal?) – and a collective level.
I’ve written a bit before about the incredible brutality of the Thirty Years War, how the great powers of Europe carried out a holy war in Germany through parallel efforts at brutalizing anyone deemed of being of the wrong religion. But this aspect of it, with mercenary armies switching sides and using their knowledge of the civilians who collaborated with them (out of a desperate desire to survive) to punish them, could come straight out of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage. Just as religion created a Catch-22 for civilians during the Thirty Years War – remain a staunch Catholic or Lutheran and you’ll be massacred if an army from the opposing side comes through, convert and your former side will massacre you as a traitor and heretic – the people of the Riverlands are caught between the Starks and the Lannisters. Remaining loyal to their local liege lords and the Starks means you get killed by the Mountain, serve the Lannisters to save yourself from the Bloody Mummers and they’ll murder you anyway.
Roose and the Freys
From here we move on to the one viewpoint we get on the interaction between Roose Bolton and the Freys. As I’ll argue in just a minute, I think that this chapter shows that the Red Wedding and the Freys’ betrayal was in the works well before the news of Robb Stark marrying Jeyne Westerling made it to the Twins.
We start with something fairly innocuous, a literal comedy of errors where Elmer Frey and Arya Stark meet their intended betrothed without realizing it. Elmer, to be frank, is something of a doofus: he’s a mooch, he’s lazy, he’s a braggart, a bit of a snob, and a total wuss when it comes to leeches (then again, who isn’t?):
Elmar could be friendly when he needed help, but afterward he would always remember that he was a squire and she was only a serving girl. He liked to boast how he was the son of the Lord of the Crossing, not a nephew or a bastard or a grandson but a trueborn son, and on account of that he was going to marry a princess.
Arya didn’t care about his precious princess, and didn’t like him giving her commands. “I have to bring m’lord water for his basin. He’s in his bedchamber being leeched. Not the regular black leeches but the big pale ones.”
Speaking of leeches, this chapter is where we get a whole side of Roose Bolton that the show simply never attempted to portray, in one of the weirdest introductory images of a major villain that I can remember. Roose Bolton controls the room completely in an amazing display of total vulnerability turned on its head; at the same time, it’s an almost LBJ-like power play because he’s literally making the whole room crowd in close and stare at his naked body:
The lord’s bedchamber was crowded when she entered. Qyburn was in attendance, and dour Walton in his mail shirt and greaves, plus a dozen Freys, all brothers, half brothers, and cousins. Roose Bolton lay abed, naked. Leeches clung to the inside of his arms and legs and dotted his pallid chest, long translucent things that turned a glistening pink as they fed. Bolton paid them no more mind than he did Arya.
…Roose Bolton’s voice was so soft that men had to strain to hear it, so his chambers were always strangely hushed.
GRRM structures this scene like a slow reveal in a horror movie, increasingly adding more and more unsettling details without ever letting you see the movie monster. We start with the out of place imagery of Roose Bolton holding a council of war buck-naked, but then add on top of that the not-quite-right fact that it’s only the Freys in the room. In what’s putatively a gathering of Robb Stark’s forces, we have no Glovers, no Tallharts, no Cerwyns, no Karstarks, no Manderlys, only Roose Bolton and the Freys. From a Watsonian perspective, this lends evidence to the fact that the Dreadfort and the Twins are already an alliance on their own who naturally want to operate outside of the sight of loyal men; from a Doylist perspective, this allows GRRM to bring the individual Freys into focus so that we start to know the men who are going to become some of the biggest recurring villains of the series.
The Origins of the Red Wedding: Roose Bolton’s Strategic Situation
The next unsettling detail is that Ser Aenys Frey tells us that the strategic situation has changed markedly for the worse, despite the fact that they’ve just captured both the biggest castle in the Riverlands and the lone Lannister stronghold in this theater of war:
“We must not allow Lord Tywin to trap us here at Harrenhal,” Ser Aenys Frey was saying as Arya filled the washbasin. A grey stooped giant of a man with watery red eyes and huge gnarled hands, Ser Aenys had brought fifteen hundred Frey swords south to Harrenhal, yet it often seemed as if he were helpless to command even his own brothers. “The castle is so large it requires an army to hold it, and once surrounded we cannot feed an army. Nor can we hope to lay in sufficient supplies. The country is ash, the villages given over to wolves, the harvest burnt or stolen. Autumn is on us, yet there is no food in store and none being planted. We live on forage, and if the Lannisters deny that to us, we will be down to rats and shoe leather in a moon’s turn.”
“I do not mean to be besieged here…”
“What, then?” demanded Ser Jared Frey…
“Lord Tywin is many leagues from here,” Bolton said calmly. “He has many matters yet to settle at King’s Landing. He will not march on Harrenhal for some time.”
Ser Aenys shook his head stubbornly. “You do not know the Lannisters as we do, my lord. King Stannis thought that Lord Tywin was a thousand leagues away as well, and it undid him.”
The pale man in the bed smiled faintly as the leeches nursed of his blood. “I am not a man to be undone, ser.”
On the one hand, it’s interesting that we’re already seeing the completely burned-out Riverlands of ASOS and AFFC (which is, ironically, mostly due to Roose Bolton not closing the door after Tywin following his retreat from the Green Fork). But on the other hand, there’s something not quite right about the strategic logic here – after all, it’s not that long since Tywin Lannister was somehow able to feed twice as many men through foraging and he didn’t have the resources of the part of the Riverlands protected by the Trident. The same supply problems that would apply to Roose Bolton would apply even more so to any army Tywin would send to Harrenhal, since their supply lines would have to stretch all the way down past King’s Landing to the Reach.
So Roose Bolton is quite right in his mysterious confidence. On a re-read, we know that Tywin is going to be far too busy planning weddings to march his entire force out of King’s Landing. At the same time, we also know that Roose is right not so much because of his superior ability to judge what his opponent will do, but rather because Roose is communicating with Tywin in preparation for the Red Wedding and knows exactly what the Lannisters are going to do.
Origins of the Red Wedding: Frey Motivations
However, the Freys’ terror at the thought of Tywin Lannister doesn’t stop at the supply situation:
“Even if Riverrun marshals all its strength and the Young Wolf wins back from the west, how can we hope to match the numbers Lord Tywin can send against us? When he comes, he will come with far more power than he commanded on the Green Fork. Highgarden has joined itself to Joffrey’s cause, I remind you!”
“…I have been Lord Tywin’s captive once,” said Ser Hosteen, a husky man with a square face who was said to be the strongest of the Freys. “I have no wish to enjoy Lannister hospitality again.”
Ser Harys Haigh, who was a Frey on his mother’s side, nodded vigorously. “If Lord Tywin could defeat a seasoned man like Stannis Baratheon, what chance will our boy king have against him?” He looked round to his brothers and cousins for support, and several of them muttered agreement.
“Someone must have the courage to say it,” Ser Hosteen said. “The war is lost. King Robb must be made to see that…He has lost the north…He has lost Winterfell!… King Robb must make his peace with the Lannisters. He must put off his crown and bend the knee, little as he may like it.”
Again, this is somewhat odd from a military situation. We’ve been told that Robb’s 40,000 men wasn’t enough to put Harrenhal under siege, so if “Highgarden has joined itself to Joffrey’s cause,” then it makes a lot more sense to hold Harrenhal and use its defensive multiplier to hold down Robb’s eastern flank and force Tywin and the Tyrells to tie down valuable men and resources putting it under siege, creating an opening for Robb to attack where those men are not and potentially defeat his enemies in detail. Certainly Roose’s 10,000 men would stand a better chance behind the walls of Harrenhal than they would in the open field against the same numbers. And yet here is Aenys, Hosteen, and Harys once again telling Roose to abandon the castle.
Where it does make sense is on a political level. The Freys see that Stannis has been eliminated, that the Tyrells and the Lannisters have joined together, and that Winterfell has been lost (even though as far as they know it’s extremely likely to be retaken) and all of the sudden they think Robb Stark is a lost cause. Hence their sworn king and relative to be changes already from the “Young Wolf” to “our boy king” who “has lost the north.” And the timing for this is important – this scene takes place before news arrives from the Crag that Robb has married Jeyne Westerling and broken his oath to the Freys, and already we have the Freys looking for any excuse to get out of the Stark camp. As I have argued before, and as GRRM’s own statements have proved, the Freys were going to betray Robb Stark no matter what he did, and here we see clear evidence of a pressing motive.
Origins of the Red Wedding: The Battle of Duskendale
But what about Roose Bolton; where is the evidence that he had switched sides before Robb’s marriage was known? Well, here we have even stronger evidence in the form of the orders he gives right in this meeting:
“I will send a letter of my own…to Ser Helman Tallhart…Tell him to put the captives to the sword and the castle to the torch, by command of the king. Then he is to join forces with Robett Glover and strike east toward Duskendale. Those are rich lands, and hardly touched by the fighting. It is time they had a taste. Glover has lost a castle, and Tallhart a son. Let them take their vengeance on Duskendale.”
As we’ll see in ASOS, the Battle of Duskendale is a key precondition for the outside portion of the Red Wedding. Between Roose Bolton and the Freys, they only have 7,500 men compared to 10,000 loyalists (the 3,500 men Robb brought to the Wedding, plus the 6,500 men lost as Duskendale and the Ruby Ford). Thus, in order for Roose Bolton and Walder Frey to get away with their treason, they need to reduce the loyalist faction of the Northern army to a small enough number that victory is certain. And the only way to do that is if Roose Bolton sends a raven to Tywin Lannister informing him exactly where and when the Northern infantry will be marching. Because it’s not enough for the North to suffer an ordinary defeat – thousands of casualties have to be inflicted before the Red Wedding math works out, and that in turn requires a lopsided victory on the part of the Tyrell/Lannister alliance, which in turn means the necessary intelligence needed to set up an ambush.
Hence, Roose and Tywin have to be already in the process of working out a deal, because this is going several steps beyond what he did at the Green Fork and Roose Bolton is far too cautious a man to commit high treason without getting a firm commitment on Tywin’s part that he’ll have a ship to jump to. At the Green Fork, all Roose did was incompetently carry out the orders he was given – here, Roose is engaging in independent action by ordering his men to carry out a new offensive, all of this supposedly “by command of the king.” As we’ll see in ASOS, this potentially exposes Roose to accusations of treason when he links back up with the King in the North – hence the need to draw on the fact that “Glover has lost a castle, and Tallhart a son” to concoct a cover story that Robett and Helman acted without orders. And this too requires Roose to arrange for a total defeat at Duskendale, because if either man makes it back to the rendezvous with their king, they will contradict his story immediately. All of this is to say that, like Eddard Stark’s demise in AGOT, the Red Wedding has a lot of dominoes that have to fall exactly right in order to bring down Robb and Catelyn Stark.
And if you need any further evidence that Roose Bolton has decided to betray the Starks, consider that the moment this strategy meeting ends, his first item on his to do list is:
“It is wolves I mean to hunt. I can scarcely sleep at night for the howling.” Bolton buckled on his belt, adjusting the hang of sword and dagger. “It’s said that direwolves once roamed the north in great packs of a hundred or more, and feared neither man nor mammoth, but that was long ago and in another land…”
Roose Bolton hunting down House Stark’s spirit animal. Not exactly subtle.
Arya Gets Some News
Moving on, Arya X also gives us a moment of intersection between character arcs that will become increasingly rare in ASOIAF – although as I’ve discussed elsewhere, I think we can see in ADWD a sense of narrative gravity forming around Winterfell and King’s Landing and beginning to draw character arcs towards one of the those two poles. Here, we see Arya getting news about what Robb Stark has been doing off-page:
“My princess,” he sobbed. “We’ve been dishonored, Aenys says. There was a bird from the Twins. My lord father says I’ll need to marry someone else, or be a septon.”
A stupid princess, she thought, that’s nothing to cry over. “My brothers might be dead,” she confided.
Elmar gave her a scornful look. “No one cares about a serving girl’s brothers.”It was hard not to hit him when he said that. “I hope your princess dies,” she said, and ran off before he could grab her.
This is an interesting move – GRRM essentially spoiling the big reveal of Catelyn II of ASOS – but it’s kept just vague enough that you only really catch it on a re-read. At the same time, this scene is a darker parallel to Arya’s first encounter with her onetime fiancé, with the specter of the Red Wedding hovering over Elmar and Arya’s argument. Indeed, I think you could even go so far as to say that Arya’s inadvertent wish for her own death could be a preview of Arya’s own fake-out “death” in Arya XI of ASOS; while she doesn’t physically die at the Twins, there’s a strong argument that a good bit of her identity as a Stark and blood relative of the King in the North does end there.
At the same time, Elmar’s grief is meant to appear selfish, childish, and inconsequential in comparison to Arya’s as she learns that:
For a moment Arya forgot to breathe. Dead? Bran and Rickon, dead? What does he mean? What does he mean about Winterfell, Joffrey could never take Winterfell, never, Robb would never let him. Then she remembered that Robb was not at Winterfell. He was away in the west, and Bran was crippled, and Rickon only four. It took all her strength to remain still and silent, the way Syrio Forel had taught her, to stand there like a stick of furniture. She felt tears gathering in her eyes, and willed them away. It’s not true, it can’t be true, it’s just some Lannister lie.
This is the second time that Arya has lost family members to a violent death (or at least so she believes), and it won’t be the last. And while the news is false, it also probably won’t be the last time that she’ll get a much-exaggerated report of the murder of kin, and the emotional impact is real enough to act as a necessary kick in the pants to get Arya to make up her mind to leave Harrenhal.
Before Arya can leave Harrenhal’s orbit, however, she has to make a larger decision as to where her destiny will take her, which is intertwined with the larger question of who she wants to be:
Sometimes she wished she had gone off across the narrow sea with Jaqen H’ghar. She still had the stupid coin he’d given her, a piece of iron no larger than a penny and rusted along the rim. One side had writing on it, queer words she could not read. The other showed a man’s head, but so worn that all his features had rubbed off. He said it was of great value, but that was probably a lie too, like his name and even his face. That made her so angry that she threw the coin away, but after an hour she got to feeling bad and went and found it again, even though it wasn’t worth anything.
…A large ragged sheepskin was tossed across the papers. Arya had started to roll it up when the colors caught her eye: the blue of lakes and rivers, the red dots where castles and cities could be found, the green of woods. She spread it out instead. THE LANDS OF THE TRIDENT, said the ornate script beneath the map. The drawing showed everything from the Neck to the Blackwater Rush. There’s Harrenhal at the top of the big lake, she realized, but where’s Riverrun? Then she saw. It’s not so far . . .
…If I had wings I could fly back to Winterfell and see for myself. And if it was true, I’d just fly away, fly up past the moon and the shining stars, and see all the things in Old Nan’s stories, dragons and sea monsters and the Titan of Braavos, and maybe I wouldn’t ever fly back unless I wanted to.
For all that people think of Arya’s time at the House of Black and White is often seen by the fans as an identity-erasing false direction that’s standing in between Arya and her destiny in Westeros, it’s important to note that Arya has a really strong strong connection to the coin and what it promises, and that her go-to Plan B is to go to Braavos, long before the events of the Red Wedding. So it’s a real choice – does Arya decide to go backwards or go forwards, embrace her identity as part of a family or seek out new interests that could define her as a unique individual?
Ultimately, as we’ll see a bit later on, Arya will make the decision that she’s a Stark and her destiny is Winterfell. However, GRRM’s plan for Arya is for her to go to Braavos, so the path she chooses here to go to Winterfell by way of Riverrun has to be obliterated by the Red Wedding. Which raises an interesting question: is GRRM making this a false choice, which I would normally call out as bad writing because it tends to invalidate character development, or is it an intensification of the thwarted-destiny thread in the Starks’ storylines which is necessary to justify Arya’s transition into a ruthless assassin?
Well, if there’s any doubt that GRRM thinks this is an important moment, we get a literal Deus Ex Machina moment, where Arya drops to her knees in the godswood and appeals to the gods on high to give her a sign:
“Tell me what to do, you gods,” she prayed.
For a long moment there was no sound but the wind and the water and the creak of leaf and limb. And then, far far off, beyond the godswood and the haunted towers and the immense stone walls of Harrenhal, from somewhere out in the world, came the long lonely howl of a wolf. Gooseprickles rose on Arya’s skin, and for an instant she felt dizzy. Then, so faintly, it seemed as if she heard her father’s voice. “When the snows fall and the white winds blow, the lone wolf dies, but the pack survives,” he said.
“But there is no pack,” she whispered to the weirwood. Bran and Rickon were dead, the Lannisters had Sansa, Jon had gone to the Wall. “I’m not even me now, I’m Nan.”
“You are Arya of Winterfell, daughter of the north. You told me you could be strong. You have the wolf blood in you.”
“The wolf blood.” Arya remembered now. “I’ll be as strong as Robb. I said I would.” She took a deep breath, then lifted the broomstick in both hands and brought it down across her knee. It broke with a loud crack, and she threw the pieces aside. I am a direwolf, and done with wooden teeth.
I’m surprised that this moment isn’t something that the ASOIAF fandom doesn’t make a bigger deal about; yes, we’ve seen Arya hear voices before, but in that case she only heard things that she heard before and it could be argued that she was remembering. Here, there’s a mix of memory and genuinely new statements, seemingly coming straight from a ghost (and while GRRM has had a number of supernatural elements in his story, I don’t think we’ve ever had a ghost appearing while someone was awake). On the other hand, given the description of the event – “for a long moment there was no sound but the wind and the water and the creak of leaf and limb. And then, far far off…from somewhere out in the world, came the long lonely howl of a wolf” – I wonder if this is another case of time-travelling Bran using his greenseer powers to direct his family members to where they need to go in order to get the skills they need for the final battle.
Regardless of who’s behind this moment and whether or not GRRM invalidated this choice, this is a big moment for Arya’s character arc. Breaking the wooden sword is a pretty militant statement that Arya is putting away childish things, and certainly I would argue that a good deal of Arya’s innocence has been burnt away during her time at Harrenhal. Going forward, Arya’s degree of violence is only going to grow, even before her ambition to reunite with her family (and thus her childhood) is brutally invalidated by the Red Wedding, which supposedly leads Arya down a dark path.
Arya’s Great Escape
Speaking of which, in this chapter Arya conceives of and executes an escape from Harrenhal in a more organized, thought-out, and frankly adult fashion than she thought up the capture of Harrenhal. However, in the process we see a moment of Arya’s potential for more ambiguity that goes along with espionage and prison escape stories, where moral compromises are a key part of the genre. Take for example the way that Arya gets Gendry to go along with her plot:
“They’ll do you worse. Lord Bolton is giving Harrenhal to the Bloody Mummers, he told me so.”
Gendry pushed black hair out of his eyes. “So?”
She looked right at him, fearless. “So when Vargo Hoat’s the lord, he’s going to cut off the feet of all the servants to keep them from running away. The smiths too… We’ll need bread or oakcakes or something. You get the swords and I’ll do the horses. We’ll meet near the postern in the east wall, behind the Tower of Ghosts. No one ever comes there.”
While Arya is mixing the truth in with this story (Roose Bolton is giving Harrenhal to Vargo Hoat, supposedly to cover his rear when he marches to the Twins but really to try to dodge the curse) she’s also lying to Gendry, using her modest amount of social privilege as Roose’s cupbearer to exert influence over him. Now, Arya is more right than she knows – Vargo Hoat’s tenure as Lord of Harrenhal will end with death, mutilation, and degradation for pretty much everyone who remains in the castle, as Jaime finds out in AFFC – but that ultimately comes down to dramatic irony rather than Arya lying for a good cause.
At the same time, though, it’s impressive how Arya judo-flips the new power hierarchy to aid in the planning of her escape:
“Lord Bolton requires three horses saddled and bridled…Lord Bolton is not in the habit of being questioned by servants…”
Leading the horses across the castle was the worst part. She stayed in the shadow of the curtain wall whenever she could, so the sentries walking their rounds on the ramparts above would have needed to look almost straight down to see her. And if they do, what of it? I’m my lord’s own cupbearer.
When I say that GRRM isn’t a nihilist and makes the lows lower to make the highs higher, this is the sort of thing I’m pointing to. Roose’s own system of merciless authoritarianism is directly responsible for this prison break, because in any other scenario people would exercise their individual autonomy to second-guess why a bunch of children are requisitioning supplies. At the same time, we have to acknowledge that compared to the last time the trio went wandering by themselves, Arya’s instincts for how to use her surroundings have been honed dramatically – almost the moment she sees the map in Roose’s quarters she’s got a comprehensive strategy that involves intelligence, logistics, transportation, and weaponry.
At the same time, though, there s a price to be paid for success:
She made no effort to hide, but approached the guard openly, as if Lord Bolton himself had sent her. He watched her come, curious as to what might bring a page here at this black hour. When she got closer, she saw that he was a northman, very tall and thin, huddled in a ragged fur cloak. That was bad. She might have been able to trick a Frey or one of the Brave Companions, but the Dreadfort men had served Roose Bolton their whole life, and they knew him better than she did. If I tell him I am Arya Stark and command him to stand aside…No, she dare not. He was a northman, but not a Winterfell man. He belonged to Roose Bolton.
…She could see the gleam of steel under the fur, and she did not know if she was strong enough to drive the point of the dagger through chainmail. His throat, it must be his throat, but he’s too tall, I’ll never reach it. For a moment she did not know what to say. For a moment she was a little girl again, and scared, and the rain on her face felt like tears.
“He told me to give all his guards a silver piece, for their good service.” The words seemed to come out of nowhere…Her fingers dug down beneath her tunic and came out clutching the coin Jaqen had given her. In the dark the iron could pass for tarnished silver. She held it out…and let it slip through her fingers.
Cursing her softly, the man went to a knee to grope for the coin in the dirt, and there was his neck right in front of her. Arya slid her dagger out and drew it across his throat, as smooth as summer silk. His blood covered her hands in a hot gush and he tried to shout but there was blood in his mouth as well.
“Valar morghulis,” she whispered as he died.
Throughout the Arya chapters in ACOK, I’ve charted her moral development, because understanding how we get from a child sword fighting with a broomstick to the protagonist of “Mercy” hinges on seeing the moments of transition that justify that profound a transformation. And this is one of the more profound moments – in order to effect her escape, Arya commits a cold-blooded pre-meditated murder, one not justified by appeal to any larger cause. Indeed, her recognition that the guard is a Northman and that, in some way, her killing of him is a betrayal of House Stark’s cause (or at least its responsibility to protect its bannermen), making this a major loss of innocence. (Hence why GRRM emphasizes her size and feeling like a child in the moment.)
At the same time, we can also see from hindsight that this is a momentous moment for her relationship with the Faceless Men – long before Arya makes it to the House of Black and White, she uses their coin to kill and their words to justify her actions.
I’m going to save the discussion of the Thirty Years War for when Arya makes it to the Brotherhood Without Banners in ASOS because it’s a tad more apropos then, so today our topic of historical analysis is leeches – although first we have to discuss the four humors. The theory of the four humors is probably one of the oldest in the history of medicine: its medical formation dates back all the way back to Hippocrates of the famous oath in the 4th and 5th centuries BCE, the physician Galen wrote a book about it in the 2nd century CE, the Persian scholar Avicenna believed in it, and it was influential in medical circles into the 19th century when it was overtaken by germ theory and the study of the cell. The basic idea is that human bodies contain four fundamental fluids – blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm – and that diseases and disorders stem from an imbalance of one of these fluids.
It all gets very complicated – a lot of these theories thought the fluids corresponded with the classical elements of earth, air, fire, and water, as well as hot/cold and dry/wet modalities – but the medical logic was straightforward. Figure out which of the humors is in deficit or excess, and either supplement it or drain it off. And that’s where we come to leeches. Excess blood was believed to cause inflammation, fever, headaches, and apoplexy (as well as overconfidence and dreaminess), so to treat those conditions, leeches were an alternative to the messy business of blood-letting.
And the medical community were not messing around – much as in the description in this chapter, leeches were prescribed by the dozens (some doctors recommended a minimum of 50 a session), because fainting due to blood loss was seen as a sign that the treatment was working. This supported a very healthy leech-production industry, so that by the 1830s, France was importing 40 million leeches annually (for a population of only 30 million people). Which is good news for Chett’s father, as long as the Citadel doesn’t throw up a Pierre-Charles-Alexandre Louis.
There’s not a lot of different hypotheticals in this chapter, given that the chapter focuses largely around one major decision by Arya, but there are a couple different ways this could play out:
- Arya goes straight for Braavos? Here, the main difference for Arya is that she never meets up with the Brotherhood Without Banners or Sandor Clegane, and is spared the near-miss at the Red Wedding that puts her in a state of profound depression. In addition, Arya gets a four month jump on her training compared to OTL. However, to me the more profound change is what happens to everyone else – it’s likely that Gendry and Hot Pie don’t end up at the Inn at the Crossroads, and Sandor Clegane likely never “dies” and doesn’t wind up at the Quiet Isle. Finally, with less time spent in the Riverlands, it’s possible that Brienne never gets on Arya’s trail and instead focuses all of her efforts on Sansa, more like in the show.
- Arya doesn’t leave Harrenhal? This may well be the darkest timeline. The most likely scenario is that Arya, Gendry, and Hot Pie die horribly when the Mountain sacks Harrenhal, and that’s if they’re lucky. However, it’s possible that this means that Arya is recognized by Jaime Lannister and Brienne when they arrive in Harrenhal, which might mean that Brienne doesn’t stick around King’s Landing and instead heads straight for Riverrun with Arya, so maybe Arya ends up escaping along with the Blackfish bound for the Brotherhood Without Banners after all?
Book vs. Show:
Arya’s arc in Season 2 of Game of Thrones leaves me very conflicted about adaptational choices. On the one hand, I wouldn’t trade Maisie Williams’ scenes with Charles Dance for the world, and I can see why Benioff and Weiss considered it more important to build up Tywin Lannister’s character in the season immediately proceeding the Red Wedding. Moreover, I have to admit that the visual image of the Lannister guards pinned in place as Arya crept out of Harrenhal, steeling her nerves as she did so, was quite powerful and has stayed with me ever since. (I can also appreciate that Arya’s transformation probably worked better as a more gradual process, as too much repetition of depressed horror can be numbing – hence moving her coin/murder scene to Season 4)
On the other hand, these decisions are not without cost. Most profoundly, the character of Roose Bolton has been sheared of much of his weirdness. In the show, he’s a relentlessly pragmatic and level-headed villain, almost bloodless in his calculation of interest. What you miss is his profound if quiet strangeness – his belief that the darker desires of humanity (which he clearly has – hence his siring of Ramsay) can be leeched out of the human body, his dissociative relationship with everyone around him including his own progeny and the future of his northern dynasty, and the strange associations he has to the occult (I didn’t mention the book-burning in the main text, which I think is meant to remain a mystery). Certainly, I don’t think a show-only watcher would have ever come up with something as unhinged as the Bolt-On theory. (Incidentally – if Roose was a vampire, why would he be trying to get rid of blood? Unless he was a reverse vampire…)