They’re Here!

“You close it good and tight. They’re coming, crow.” He smiled as ugly a smile as Jon had ever seen and made his way to the gate. The boar stalked after him. The falling snow covered up their tracks behind them.. (aDwD, Jon XII)

While there are variations and disagreements on many particulars on what follows after the assassination attempt on Jon’s life, there tends to be one consensus amongst the readers: the Others are chilling far away from the Wall for now.


An Illusion of Time

George actively aims to lull the reader into believing there is time before the Others will finally come knocking, by having Jon himself misread or underestimate the signs of their near presence; by having Jon plan an overland trek to Hardhome. He also created an expectation with the readers via the attack on the Fist of the First Men in aSoS and Mel’s vision of Hardhome that when the Others do arrive at the Wall, they will do so with a full force of perhaps ten thousand wights.

Snowflakes swirled from a dark sky and ashes rose to meet them, the grey and the white whirling around each other as flaming arrows arced above a wooden wall and dead things shambled silent through the cold, beneath a great grey cliff where fires burned inside a hundred caves. Then the wind rose and the white mist came sweeping in, impossibly cold, and one by one the fires went out. Afterward only the skulls remained. (aDwD, Melisandre I)

Burning shafts hissed upward, trailing tongues of fire. Scarecrow brothers tumbled down, black cloaks ablaze. “Snow,” an eagle cried, as foemen scuttled up the ice like spiders. Jon was armored in black ice, but his blade burned red in his fist. As the dead men reached the top of the Wall he sent them down to die again. He slew a greybeard and a beardless boy, a giant, a gaunt man with filed teeth, a girl with thick red hair. Too late he recognized Ygritte. She was gone as quick as she’d appeared. (aDwD, Jon XII)

Wight army with wighted Giants, Game Of Thrones TV-series.

But the Others do not always use the tactic of the Fist of the First Men. Nor do they operate all at once in the same location. For example, while some led an attack on Hardhome, other Others nibbled at Tormund’s army journeying south to the Wall.

Furthermore, readers also expect the first strike to be at Eastwatch, because Mel said so.

Then the towers by the sea, crumbling as the dark tide came sweeping over them, rising from the depths. […]
Was it? Melisandre had seen Eastwatch-by-the-Sea with King Stannis. That was where His Grace left Queen Selyse and their daughter Shireen when he assembled his knights for the march to Castle Black. The towers in her fire had been different, but that was oft the way with visions. “Yes. Eastwatch, my lord.” (aDwD, Melisandre I)

But Melisandre herself is unsure whether she saw Eastwatch fall. Her own thoughts lean towards, “Nope”. She gave Jon an affirmative answer, because it seemed better to lie with confidence than to be truthful about her doubts. She has wanted Jon to seek her for advice and win his trust since her arrival at the Wall. He was always a skeptic of her. After the Weeper killed his brothers and left them as she had foretold, Jon finally comes to seek her out, and her answering “I don’t know which place I saw,” would not do.

So, if it is not Eastwatch, then what did Mel see? Since the early days of aDwD‘s release, a good section of the fandom suspects this is a vision about Euron conquering Oldtown:

Both Garlan the Good and Rooseman propose the two towers represent members of House Hightower. Personally, I think the two towers represent the physical Hightower and the fall of House Hightower. The public reading by GRRM at a convention of Aeron’s POV chapter The Forsaken for tWoW has only strengthened the idea of Oldtown as target location for Euron’s attack. The naysayers of an attack on Oldtown in the early days doubted the length Euron would go with his dabbling in magic. The Forsaken though sets Euron up to either become or be an accomplice to an Eldritch horror and blew the naysayer argument out of the water (pun intended). Euron and Oldtown falls beyond the scope and intent of this essay. But it serves to throw serious Shade (pun intended) on Mel’s claim about Eastwatch.

Winter Has Come

It is quite important to keep the timeline in the back of your mind of Jon’s last chapter in aDwD, in comparison to basically almost any other POV, events and plot developments. That chapter is the farthest ahead in time, including aDwD‘s epilogue and sample chapters of tWoW. The plot of all the other POVs still need to catch up to Jon’s timeline: Cersei in King’s Landing, Arianne with Aegon and Storm’s End, Theon and Asha with Stannis, Davos in search of Rickon, Jaime and Brienne in the Riverlands, Sansa in the Vale, and finally Samwell and Aeron Damphair involving Oldtown and Euron. Add Arya in Braavos, Dany in the Dothraki Sea and the three POVs in Meereen, and we already have enough content for at least the first third of tWoW, if not the first half. And while no white raven from Oldtown has yet arrived at Castle Black to announce winter, it has in King’s Landing during the Epilogue, which can be synched with Jon IX or Jon X of aDwD. (see the timeline project). So, yes winter is very much here, and with winter so are the Others.

The white ravens of the Citadel did not carry messages, as their dark cousins did. When they went forth from Oldtown, it was for one purpose only: to herald a change of seasons. “Winter,” said Ser Kevan. The word made a white mist in the air. (aDwD, Epilogue)

Now, I am not the first reader to propose, the Others are “here”. Once in a while, readers will pause at the following description in the last paragraphs of Jon’s last chapter of aDwD.

“For the Watch.” Wick slashed at him again. This time Jon caught his wrist and bent his arm back until he dropped the dagger. The gangling steward backed away, his hands upraised as if to say, Not me, it was not me. Men were screaming. Jon reached for Longclaw, but his fingers had grown stiff and clumsy. Somehow he could not seem to get the sword free of its scabbard. (aDwD, Jon XIII)

With almost everybody’s attention on upset Wun Wun, it is unlikely any of the men screaming are actual witnesses to the assassination attempt. Wick’s attack of Jon is not the cause of their screaming. And so, some readers will wonder out loud, “Is it wights?” Especially, because this is the exact same question of Jon’s guard Rory when Patrek screams in mortal torment when Wun Wun pulls his arm.

He might have said more, but the scream cut him off. Val, was Jon’s first thought. But that was no woman’s scream. That is a man in mortal agony. He broke into a run. Horse and Rory raced after him. “Is it wights?” asked Rory. Jon wondered. Could his corpses have escaped their chains? The screaming had stopped by the time they came to Hardin’s Tower, but Wun Weg Wun Dar Wun was still roaring. The giant was dangling a bloody corpse by one leg, the same way Arya used to dangle her doll when she was small, swinging it like a morningstar when menaced by vegetables. Arya never tore her dolls to pieces, though. The dead man’s sword arm was yards away, the snow beneath it turning red. (aDwD, Jon XIII)

But just one line of “men screaming” without further explanation is not enough to convince readers. After all, we are not explicitly told what the men are screaming in fear for. It is suggestive, but inconclusive. However, when we go farther back in time of this chapter and to an earlier chapter we can build a case of circumstantial evidence.

The Free Folk Know

The day the Free Folk are to pass through Castle Black’s gate to the southern side of the Wall, it starts to grow darker by afternoon, first grey with a snow sky blocking the sun out. As soon as the Free Folk realize there is a snow sky, they increasingly become impatient in the long waiting line and start to move faster. The darker it grows, the more the urgence increases amongst the Free Folk, enough for Jon to realize it is more than just impatience, but real fear.

By afternoon the sun had gone, and the day turned grey and gusty. “A snow sky,” Tormund announced grimly. Others had seen the same omen in those flat white clouds. It seemed to spur them on to haste. Tempers began to fray. One man was stabbed when he tried to slip in ahead of others who had been hours in the column. […] On and on the wildlings came. The day grew darker, just as Tormund said. Clouds covered the sky from horizon to horizon, and warmth fled. There was more shoving at the gate, as men and goats and bullocks jostled each other out of the way. It is more than impatience, Jon realized. They are afraid. Warriors, spearwives, raiders, they are frightened of those woods, of shadows moving through the trees. They want to put the Wall between them before the night descends. (aDwD, Jon XII)

And when Jon first inquires with Tormund to tell him all he can about the Others, the man is reluctant to talk of them north of the Wall, mumbling his answer and eyeing the tree line uneasily.

“Tormund,” Jon said, as they watched four old women pull a cartful of children toward the gate, “tell me of our foe. I would know all there is to know of the Others.”
The wildling rubbed his mouth. “Not here,” he mumbled, “not this side o’ your Wall.” The old man glanced uneasily toward the trees in their white mantles. “They’re never far, you know. They won’t come out by day, not when that old sun’s shining, but don’t think that means they went away. Shadows never go away. Might be you don’t see them, but they’re always clinging to your heels.” (aDwD, Jon XII)

It is so easy for the reader to dismiss this fear as superstition or jolly Har-Tormund as being a tall-talker, because George has conditioned the reader to consider wildlings and lowborn characters in this way. We are conditioned by our own culture and the precedents to respond to them the same way Waymar Royce dismissed Gared in aGoT‘s prologue, even if we know and recognize the Others are real. And even while Tormund is indeed a tall-talker, can still make jokes and be a jolly fellow, he is also a leader. Thousands of wildlings still chose to follow him after the Battle at the Wall, followed him south to agree to a deal with the Night’s Watch. Unlike the many who went with Mother Mole to Hardhome, these Free Folk and Tormund survived in great numbers and managed to cross safely to the southern side of the Wall. But this was not because the Others did not bother with them. Quite the opposite, Others journeyed with them south, taking out scouts, outriders and stragglers.

“Did they trouble you on your way south?”
“They never came in force, if that’s your meaning, but they were with us all the same, nibbling at our edges. We lost more outriders than I care to think about, and it was worth your life to fall behind or wander off. Every nightfall we’d ring our camps with fire. They don’t like fire much, and no mistake. When the snows came, though … snow and sleet and freezing rain, it’s bloody hard to find dry wood or get your kindling lit, and the cold … some nights our fires just seemed to shrivel up and die. Nights like that, you always find some dead come the morning. ‘Less they find you first. The night that Torwynd … my boy, he …’ Tormund turned his face away. (aDwD, Jon XII)

We should picture this journey south by Tormund and the Free Folk more akin to Samwell’s death march to Craster after the Fist.

Tormund also points out to Jon that there is a huge difference between accepting the existence of Others and the actual deadly interaction with them.

Tormund turned back. “You know nothing. You killed a dead man, aye, I heard. Mance killed a hundred. A man can fight the dead, but when their masters come, when the white mists rise uphow do you fight a mist, crow? Shadows with teethair so cold it hurts to breathe, like a knife inside your chest … you do not know, you cannot know … can your sword cut cold?” (aDwD, Jon XII)

The Others, by padhome

Jon’s own personal experience has solely been with just one wight. His Wall-dream/nightmare with the dead climbing the Wall like spiders basically only involves wights. So far, he has never seen or crossed swords with an Other. The sole man who lived to tell such a tale was Samwell. He does not even know the tell-tale signs of their proximity. But Tormund and the Free Folk passing the gate of the Wall do. So, Jon and we the readers should take the Free Folk’s fears serious.

And we should pay attention to Tormund’s orders when they align with environmental circumstances that are associated with Others: darkness, cold and snow. During the crossing of the Wall, it starts to snow. By then it is near dusk. Tormund urges his son Toregg to get the sick and weak moving, to burn the dead. When Toregg returns, he does so with Tormund’s rearguard.

The stream was no more than a trickle by the time Toregg emerged from the wood. With him rode a dozen mounted warriors armed with spears and swords. “My rear guard,” Tormund said, with a gap-toothed smile. “You crows have rangers. So do we. Them I left in camp in case we were attacked before we all got out.”
“Your best men.” (aDwD, Jon XII)

This rearguard’s job all day was to guard the sick and weak at the camp, not from attack by say the Weeper, but the Others. The risk or possibility of that happening was this real in Tormund’s mind. And guess who is one of the men of Tormund’s rearguard?

Borroq, by Yapattack

Amongst the riders came one man afoot, with some big beast trotting at his heels. A boar, Jon saw. A monstrous boar. Twice the size of Ghost, the creature was covered with coarse black hair, with tusks as long as a man’s arm. Jon had never seen a boar so huge or ugly. The man beside him was no beauty either; hulking, black-browed, he had a flat nose, heavy jowls dark with stubble, small black close-set eyes.
Borroq.” Tormund turned his head and spat.
“A skinchanger.” It was not a question. Somehow he knew.(aDwD, Jon XII)

Borroq is not just some skinchanger amongst thousands of Free Folk who followed Tormund. He is one of Tormund’s best men and part of the rearguard who was left to guard in case the Others decided to attack. Now, why would Tormund have a skinchanger and his boar remain behind to keep watch for any sign of the Others? Might it be, because his boar would “smell” the Others sooner than humans would? Because he would be the first able to warn people?

Borroq and his boar are often met with suspicion by readers and Jon. Certainly, George is using certain stereotypical situations for people to dislike him and his boar. First, Tormund turns and spits after speaking his name, and Ghost bares his teeth in a silent snarl, standing protectively in front of Jon once he smells the boar.

Ghost turned his head. The falling snow had masked the boar’s scent, but now the white wolf had the smell. He padded out in front of Jon, his teeth bared in a silent snarl. (aDwD, Jon XII)

This reminds us of Grey Wind when he was aggressively protective of Robb at their arrival at the Twins, before the Red Wedding.

Grey Wind edged forward, tail stiff, watching through slitted eyes of dark gold. When the Freys were a half-dozen yards away Catelyn heard him growl, a deep rumble that seemed almost one with rush of the river. Robb looked startled. “Grey Wind, to me. To me!” Instead the direwolf leapt forward, snarling. (aSoS, Catelyn VI)

George is using our memory of Catelyn’s warning to Robb to keep Grey Wind by his side to sniff out those who may do him harm to make us distrust the boar and Borroq. This only works as a superficial comparison. George RR Martin did his research as a writer when it comes to wolf body language, and both he and his wife are long time sponsors and supporters of wolf sanctuaries. As a consequence George always makes sure to write any of the direwolves’ vocalisations and body language to fit with that of real wolves.

Take Grey Wind’s behavior against Black Walder and the Freys they meet upon arrival at the Twins for example. The stiff tail matches that of a wolf considering the other a threat. Slitting the eyes is an expression of suspicion and fear. A deep rumbling growl is an extremely aggressive warning. And it is followed by a leap forward. Grey Wind is therefore correctly described as regarding Black Walder as a very hostile threat and behaves accordingly.

wolf body language

While Ghost puts himself in between the boar and Jon, he does not leap, but pads forward. This is more befitting with dominant and confident behavior. Without any particular mention of hackles being raised or specifying the tail’s position, we can therefore regard Ghost’s snarl as a caution or warning towards the boar – “You behave, for this is my pack!” and “You’ll have to go through me if you mean Jon any harm.” This snarl is only meant for the boar, not Borroq. This is lightyears away from Grey Wind’s leaping, rumbling growl, stiff tail and slitted eyes towards the Freys.

Tormund reminds us that Ghost’s protective stance against the giant boar is a natural one.

Boars and wolves,” said Tormund. “Best keep that beast o’ yours locked up tonight. I’ll see that Borroq does the same with his pig.” He glanced up at the darkening sky. “Them’s the last, and none too soon. It’s going to snow all night, I feel it. Time I had a look at what’s on t’other side of all that ice.” (aDwD, Jon XII)

It is to be expected and natural that Ghost considers Borroq’s unknown boar a potential threat, without assuming something nefarious. Now let us inspect the boar’s response to this: the boar is perfectly well behaved and refrains from responding in kind to either Ghost or Jon.

Wait a minute, you might think by now, “Did the boar not threaten Jon at some point?” You are thinking of a moment that occurs far later in the interaction sequence, and it is actually unrelated to either Ghost or Jon. Just when Borroq is about to pass through the gate as the very last of the Free Folk, the last of Tormund’s rearguard, does the boar appear to be close to charging something or someone.

The skinchanger stopped ten yards away. His monster pawed at the mud, snuffling. A light powdering of snow covered the boar’s humped black back. He gave a snort and lowered his head, and for half a heartbeat Jon thought he was about to charge. To either side of him, his men lowered their spears. (aDwD, Jon XII)

The boar does this shortly after snuffling. So, we can safely conclude that this was in response to a smell he picked up. If this was a response to Ghost’s smell, the boar should have done so far earlier: when Ghost put himself between Jon and the boar. This is why we can rule out the boar wanting to charge either Jon or Ghost. So what did he smell? We are told that a light powder snow covers the boar. And since it is snowing, the snow would also drop on the ground. So, could it be the Others that the boar smells? This seems the likeliest answer, for Borroq warns Jon that “they” are coming, shortly after.

“You close it good and tight. They’re coming, crow.” He smiled as ugly a smile as Jon had ever seen and made his way to the gate. The boar stalked after him. The falling snow covered up their tracks behind them. (aDwD, Jon XII)

Because he has an ugly smile, readers tend to consider this as some nasty taunt or joke by Borroq. However, as I point out, the man is just doing the job he is supposed to do as a skinchanger rearguard. He goes through as last, and warns Jon that his boar just smelled the Others coming for them. Jon and his guardsmen mistook the target of the boar’s alarm. And Borroq’s sole crime in his introduction scene is being ugly, which is not really a crime, is it? Instead, it is quite a typical trap of George Martin to mislead the reader.

Snow! Snow! Snow!

So, once we scratch away the layer of misdirection, Borroq and his boar plant the seeds that animals can smell the Others. George has refrained from explicitly confirming this in the books as published. But the recent finds in the Cushing Library at Texas A &M University of the draft versions for aFfC and aDwD of 2004 has Ghost confirming how Others smell to him in one of Jon’s wolf dreams.

With the cliff between them, he could not sense his brother, but sometimes when he padded down the long cold burrow under the ice and poked his nose through the hard black bars, he could feel him. The snow was falling where his brother was, covering all the woods in white. And there were hunters near, living men and dead men, and the ones who wore the shapes of men but smelled only of cold. (aFfC draft 2004, Jon I)

The “cliff” that Ghost references in this quote is the “Wall”. On the one hand, this draft version confirms that the magical ward prevents Ghost from “sensing” Summer north of the Wall, as long as Ghost is south of it. And it confirms that Ghost can recognize living men from wights and from Others by smell. He is aware that the Others are not actually men at all, but only wear the shape of men and they smell only of the cold. There are several main reasons why this draft version got scrapped:

  • It is too much on the nose (pun intended) about the Wall’s magical interference with sensing who is north of the Wall.
  • It is a huge reveal about the Others “wearing” a humanoid shape (see From Sandkings to Nightqueens).
  • Once George knew he would end Jon’s arc of aDwD in the cliffhanger he did, it is only logical that he pulled such an early explicit confirmation that Ghost knows what Others smell like. Instead he gave us a hint to it via Borroq’s boar in Jon’s penultimate chapter.
  • It creates a situation where the magical ward of the Wall can not only prevent sensing someone or something, but can prevent smell, and thus a potential physical paradox.

You may remember Ghost as nearly taking a bite out of one of Jon’s guards as well as Ghost sniffing or approaching Bowen Marsh after his visit with Jon. The common interpretation of both these scenes is that Ghost is acting hostile to conspirators who plan to assassinate Jon Snow that evening. This interpretation is wrong and does not hold up under closer scrutiny, both for wolf body language and the fact that Ghost becomes aggressive even towards Jon himself. Here is the complete scene about Jon’s two guards standing outside out of fear of Ghost’s wild and aggressive behavior.

Jon Snow with Ghost by Michael Komarck
Jon Snow with Ghost and Mormont’s raven, by Michael Komarck

Outside the armory, Mully and the Flea stood shivering at guard. “Shouldn’t you be inside, out of this wind?” Jon asked.
“That’d be sweet, m’lord,” said Fulk the Flea, “but your wolf’s in no mood for company today.”
Mully agreed. “He tried to take a bite o’ me, he did.”
“Ghost?” Jon was shocked.
“Unless your lordship has some other white wolf, aye. I never seen him like this, m’lord. All wild-like, I mean.” (aDwD, Jon XIII)

The above quote is the scene readers tend to remember, and the quote that will be used by theorists to argue for example that Mully is one of the conspiritors. But that quote cut off much too early. Jon enters and experiences this:

He was not wrong, as Jon discovered for himself when he slipped inside the doors. The big white direwolf would not lie still. He paced from one end of the armory to the other, past the cold forge and back again. “Easy, Ghost,” Jon called. “Down. Sit, Ghost. Down.” Yet when he made to touch him, the wolf bristled and bared his teeth. It’s that bloody boar. Even in here, Ghost can smell his stink. (aDwD, Jon XIII)

When Jon enters the forge, Ghost is pacing in agitation. And when Jon himself attempts to calm Ghost, Ghost bristles and bares his teeth at Jon. We can conclude that Ghost is restless and extremely upset over something, enough to be aggressive to Jon himself, but I think I can get everybody to agree at least that Jon is not conspiring to kill himself, right? So, Ghost’s behavior in this scene and thus earlier to Mully is not related to a conspiracy to assassinate Jon.

Jon blames it on Ghost being able to smell Borroq’s boar. But if this was true, then his behavior here is far more aggressive with the boar at a safe distance, than when he actually faced the boar north of the Wall, or why he would display this behavior only now, when Borroq’s boar has been within the vicinity for days, and also afterwards when Ghost is much calmer. Nor does it explain the alarmed behavior of Mormont’s raven.

Mormont’s raven seemed agitated too. “Snow,” the bird kept screaming. “Snow, snow, snow.” (aDwD, Jon XIII)

Notice how the raven repeats the word snow four times. Because Samwell taught the ravens to say Snow, Jon’s name, we are bound to assume that is who the raven is referring to. But the raven could also just mean the white stuff falling from the sky. If so, then Ghost and the raven are aggressive and agitated because of what they smell in association to the snow, just like Borroq’s boar seemed to do.

Right before Jon arrived at the forge and the two guards outside, Jon looks at the Wall and the sky above the Wall. He notices clear signs of a snow sky.

He glanced up past the King’s Tower. The Wall was a dull white, the sky above it whiter. A snow sky. “Just pray we do not get another storm.” (aDwD, Jon XIII)

Wallpaper of the Wall
the Wall, author unknown (contact me for credit)

We can determine the source direction of this snow sky is the north: someone standing outside in Castle Black looking at the Wall and the sky above it, must be looking in the northern direction. So, with the precedent of the behavior of Borroq’s boar in the back of our mind, we can see that a snow sky floating in from the north direction is a valid potential cause of Ghost’s aggression, even towards Jon, and for Mormont’s raven screaming snow repeatedly.

Let me make clear, that I am not proposing that Ghost or the raven fear the snow itself. Jon observed far earlier that Ghost actually likes fresh snow.

At the base of the Wall he found Ghost rolling in a snowbank. The big white direwolf seemed to love fresh snow. (aDwD, Jon VI)

It is not the snow itself that sets off alarm bells, but the Others who come with this particular snowstorm rolling in from the north (or caused it).

“What about the Others?”
“[…] The Others come when it is cold, most of the tales agree. Or else it gets cold when they come. Sometimes they appear during snowstorms and melt away when the skies clear. […]” (aFfC, Samwell I; and aDwD, Jon II)

So, I propose that Ghost and Mormont’s raven are agitated and alarmed, because they smell the Others being near to the Wall.

Let us now test this working hypothesis for their behavior against their later behavior throughout the day. Shortly after this scene, Jon has Satin fetch Marsh and Yarwick to visit his solar in order to discuss their needs, his plan to man as many castles as he can at the Wall and how to save the survivors at Hardhome.

Jon shooed [Mormont’s raven] off, had Satin start a fire, then sent him out after Bowen Marsh and Othell Yarwyck. “Bring a flagon of mulled wine as well.”
“Three cups, m’lord?”
“Six. Mully and the Flea look in need of something warm. So will you.” […]
Marsh entered snuffling, Yarwyck dour. “Another storm,” the First Builder announced. “How are we to work in this? I need more builders.” (aDwD, Jon XIII)

Jon has his fruitless exchange with both men, and they depart. When Bowen and Othel pass Ghost he sniffs them.

Satin helped them back into their cloaks. As they walked through the armory, Ghost sniffed at them, his tail upraised and bristling. (aDwD, Jon XIII)

This sniffing and bristling is often interpreted as Ghost expressing suspicion of Marsh and Yarwick. But a suspicious wolf would NOT raise his tail vertical. Instead he would narrow his eyes, flatten his ears and the tail would point straight outward, parallel to the floor or ground (like Grey Wind). Ghost’s described posture towards Bowen Marsh is that of dominance. When the tail alone bristles and goes vertically up, without wagging, a wolf is asserting a non-aggressive, relaxed form of dominion, and certainly not expressing suspicion. Marsh or Yarwyck do not even provoke one of Ghost’s silent snarls. Ghost’s wolf body language is neither aggressive or suspicious, just dominance. 

So, on the one hand Bowen Marsh’s plan to assassinate Jon seems to not yet have been formed at this point. This only emphasizes how unlikely it was that Ghost’s actual aggression towards Jon and Mully was related to a mutiny plot.

On the other hand, Ghost not being aggressive anymore seems odd in light of my snow-smell hypothesis: if the raven and Ghost were agitated because of the smell of snow, then should they not remain such or become even more aggressive when it actually starts to snow? Not, if the winds have turned so that Ghost and the raven are not downwind anymore. And what do we learn when Bowen and Yarwyck open the door?

The snow was falling heavily outside. “Wind’s from the south,” Yarwyck observed. “It’s blowing the snow right up against the Wall. See?” He was right. The switchback stair was buried almost to the first landing, Jon saw, and the wooden doors of the ice cells and storerooms had vanished behind a wall of white. (aDwD, Jon XIII)

It is a snowstorm alright, except the wind is now blowing from the south, blowing the snow up against the Wall. In other words, the northern winds that blew snow across the Wall, have turned. This means that the Others are now downwind and cannot be smelled anymore by Ghost or the raven. Hence, Ghost and the raven cease to be aggressive or agitated.

The hypothesis holds up to later scenes with Ghost and the raven. When Jon leaves for the Shield Hall with Tormund and his other two guards, after hours of planning with Tormund over the Pink Letter, Ghost is perfectly calm, wanting to pad along with Jon.

Horse and Rory had replaced Fulk and Mully at the armory door with the change of watch. “With me,” Jon told them, when the time came. Ghost would have followed as well, but as the wolf came padding after them, Jon grabbed him by the scruff of his neck and wrestled him back inside. (aDwD, Jon XIII)

There is nothing in the direwolf’s behavior that is cause for alarm. Meanwhile Mormont’s raven is making jokes around Tormund, when Jon and Tormund discuss Selyse’s plans to wed Gerrick Kingsblood’s daughters to three of her Queen’s men, shortly before Clydas gives Jon the Pink Letter.

“He has a little red cock to go with all that red hair, that’s what he has. Raymund Redbeard and his sons died at Long Lake, thanks to your bloody Starks and the Drunken Giant. Not the little brother. Ever wonder why they called him the Red Raven?” Tormund’s mouth split in a gap-toothed grin. “First to fly the battle, he was. ‘Twas a song about it, after. The singer had to find a rhyme for craven, so …” He wiped his nose. “If your queen’s knights want those girls o’ his, they’re welcome to them.”
Girls,” squawked Mormont’s raven. “Girls, girls.”
That set Tormund to laughing all over again. “Now there’s a bird with sense. How much do you want for him, Snow? I gave you a son, the least you could do is give me the bloody bird.” (aDwD, Jon XIII)

So, George only wrote Ghost and the raven as alarmed and aggressive even to Jon, when the snow sky was gathering above the Wall, coming from the north, and both animals relax once the wind blows from the south and are absolutely calm by late afternoon or dusk. The mutiny plot cannot explain this behavior whatsoever, whereas the cold smell of the Others north of the Wall explains it well, including when the winds turn. The animals were only aggressive when they were downwind of the Others, but relaxed when they were not downwind anymore. This then becomes the circumstantial evidence to the Others being at the other side of the Wall at Castle Black at the moment when Bowen Marsh and his fellow mutineers attempt to kill Jon.

The Cold

While snow is only sometimes a sign of the Others, they always come with the cold or the cold comes with them. Cold is exactly the last that Jon experiences by the end of his last chapter.

Then Bowen Marsh stood there before him, tears running down his cheeks. “For the Watch.” He punched Jon in the belly. When he pulled his hand away, the dagger stayed where he had buried it.
Jon fell to his knees. He found the dagger’s hilt and wrenched it free. In the cold night air the wound was smoking. “Ghost,” he whispered. Pain washed over him. Stick them with the pointy end. When the third dagger took him between the shoulder blades, he gave a grunt and fell face-first into the snow. He never felt the fourth knife. Only the cold … (aDwD, Jon XIII)

Jon can only feel the cold at the end, never even the fourth knife, which is weird given the three prior wounds: a graze at the neck, a stab at the belly, and one between the shoulder. Of these three only the belly stab can be potentially mortal, but it would take hours and hours to die from it. The belly stab is the wound that smokes, which can only happen in extreme cold. In the infamous prologue of aGoT, Gared explains how the cold causes a numbness to sensations.

“Nothing burns like the cold. But only for a while. Then it gets inside you and starts to fill you up, and after a while you don’t have the strength to fight it. It’s easier just to sit down or go to sleep. They say you don’t feel any pain toward the end.” (aGoT, Prologue)

Of course, the process that Gared explains normally takes hours. In Jon’s case the sensations follow one another in rapid succession, like some form of flash freeze.

Any scene with wights or others has always involved a drop in temperature because of northern winds, and sudden cooling or extreme cold when they are near. And it is just so in aGoT‘s Prologue. All day prior to Waymar’s fateful duel with the Other, a cold northern wind blew.

A cold wind was blowing out of the north, and it made the trees rustle like living things. All day, Will had felt as though something were watching him, something cold and implacable that loved him not. (aGoT, Prologue)

Waymar Royce by Christof Grobelski
Waymar Royce by Christof Grobelski

When Will glimpses the pale shapes gliding through, Waymar asks him why it is so cold all of a sudden in a manner it was not before.

Will saw movement from the corner of his eye. Pale shapes gliding through the wood. He turned his head, glimpsed a white shadow in the darkness. Then it was gone. “Can you see anything?” [Waymar] was turning in a slow circle, suddenly wary, his sword in hand. He must have felt them, as Will felt them. There was nothing to see. “Answer me! Why is it so cold?It was cold. Shivering, Will clung more tightly to his perch. (aGoT, Prologue)

Will also describes Waymar’s physical responses, worded in a manner that we are inclined to interprete them as an expression of emotion, while they are more than likely physical reflexes to the cold.

Will heard the breath go out of Ser Waymar Royce in a long hiss. “Come no farther,” the lordling warned. His voice cracked like a boy’s. He threw the long sable cloak back over his shoulders, to free his arms for battle, and took his sword in both hands. The wind had stopped. It was very cold. […] Ser Waymar met him bravely. “Dance with me then.” He lifted his sword high over his head, defiant. His hands trembled from the weight of it, or perhaps from the cold. (aGoT, Prologue)

Waymar’s voice likely cracks from the cold. Even the hiss of his breadth may be due to the cold and having trouble with breathing.

Curiously, Waymar uses a challenge to the Other that is only phrased in that same way once: by Jon. When he sees snowflakes dance as he is about to go through the gate back into Castle Black after all the wildlings went through, and Borroq warned Jon that they are coming, Jon translates their air dance as a challenge by the Others for Jon to dance with them.

A snowflake danced upon the air. Then another. Dance with me, Jon Snow, he thought. You’ll dance with me anon. (aDwD, Jon XII)

Dancing and the dance is a regular euphemism throughout the series for war, a fight or duel. But this particular phrase is unique for Waymar and Jon alone, and both tied to the Others. Alys Karstark makes a close remark, but it is conditional only – “you could dance with me“, after which she adds, “You danced with me anon.”

And of course, Waymar’s wound steams like Jon’s.

The pale sword bit through the ringmail beneath his arm. The young lord cried out in pain. Blood welled between the rings. It steamed in the cold, and the droplets seemed red as fire where they touched the snow. (aGoT, Prologue)

Blue-eyed dead Othor and Jafer were carried through the gate into Castle Black on Jeor’s orders, instead of being burned north of the Wall. When Jon and the rest of the Night’s Watch ride for the Wall with the two wighted dead men, it is still a hot summer day.

The day was grey, damp, overcast, the sort of day that made you wish for rain. No wind stirred the wood; the air hung humid and heavy, and Jon’s clothes clung to his skin. It was warm. Too warm. The Wall was weeping copiously, had been weeping for days, and sometimes Jon even imagined it was shrinking. (aGoT, Jon VII)

After Jeor tells him of the news about Ned Stark having been arrested for treason, Jon leaves the tower to have his dinner at the mess hall. By then a north wind has rises and it is much colder.

The wind was rising, and it seemed colder in the yard than it had when he’d gone in. Spirit summer was drawing to an end. […] A north wind had begun to blow by the time the sun went down. Jon could hear it skirling against the Wall and over the icy battlements as he went to the common hall for the evening meal.(aGoT, Jon VII)

When Jon sits in his cell after attacking Alliser Thorne, we witness Ghost snarling at Jon and having scratched gouges into the door to get out, combined with Jon experiencing an extreme cold.

When he woke, his legs were stiff and cramped and the candle had long since burned out. Ghost stood on his hind legs, scrabbling at the door. Jon was startled to see how tall he’d grown. “Ghost, what is it?” he called softly. The direwolf turned his head and looked down at him, baring his fangs in a silent snarl. Has he gone mad? Jon wondered. “It’s me, Ghost,” he murmured, trying not to sound afraid. Yet he was trembling, violently. When had it gotten so cold? Ghost backed away from the door. There were deep gouges where he’d raked the wood. Jon watched him with mounting disquiet. “There’s someone out there, isn’t there?” he whispered. Crouching, the direwolf crept backward, white fur rising on the back of his neck. The guard, he thought, they left a man to guard my door, Ghost smells him through the door, that’s all it is. Slowly, Jon pushed himself to his feet. He was shivering uncontrollably, wishing he still had a sword. (aGoT, Jon VII)

Of course the crucial aspect here is that Othor and Jafer were already wighted before they were carried south of the Wall.

Dywen sucked at his wooden teeth. “Might be they didn’t die here. Might be someone brought ’em and left ’em for us. A warning, as like.” The old forester peered down suspiciously. “And might be I’m a fool, but I don’t know that Othor never had no blue eyes afore.”
Ser Jaremy looked startled. “Neither did Flowers,” he blurted, turning to stare at the dead man. (aGoT, Jon VII)

So, in aGoT, we have a situation where “sleeping” (inactive) wights can be carried south of the Wall. And while first reads may give a reader the impression that Othor and Jafer are acting on memory, the north winds rising suggests that the Others are directing them remotely from north of the Wall. The Wall may be able to prevent an active wight and Others from crossing, but it does not prevent the Others from using their magic, once a wight is south of the Wall.

Wights during the Battle of the Fist of the First Men (non cropped)_zippo514
Battle of the Fist of the First Man, by zippo14

At the Fist of the First Men, Chett experiences an extreme cold the day prior to the attack of the wights and how one of the dogs snarls at him.

The day was grey and bitter cold, and the dogs would not take the scent. The big black bitch had taken one sniff at the bear tracks, backed off, and skulked back to the pack with her tail between her legs. The dogs huddled together miserably on the riverbank as the wind snapped at them. Chett felt it too, biting through his layers of black wool and boiled leather. It was too bloody cold for man or beast, but here they were. […] “Seven hells.” He gave the leashes a hard yank to get the dogs’ attention. “Track, you bastards. That’s a bear print. You want some meat or no? Find!” But the hounds only huddled closer, whining. Chett snapped his short lash above their heads, and the black bitch snarled at him. (aSoS, Prologue)

At night, as Chett lies waiting for the hour to kill Samwell, it starts to snow and his beard is frozen with icicles, not unlike Tormund’s in Jon’s last chapter of aDwD. And here we also have ravens muttering and quorking snow.

Ice caked his beard all around his mouth. […] He could hardly breathe. […] He got to his knees, and something wet and cold touched his nose. Chett looked up. Snow was falling. He could feel tears freezing to his cheeks. […] It was a heavy fall, thick white flakes coming down all about him.  […] The snow was falling so heavily that he got lost among the tents, but finally he spotted the snug little windbreak the fat boy had made for himself between a rock and the raven cages. […] One of the ravens quorked. “Snow,” another muttered, peering through the bars with black eyes. The first added a “Snow” of its own. (aSoS, Prologue)

The wildling [Tormund] arrived red-faced, shouting for a horn of ale and something hot to eat. He had ice in his beard and more crusting his mustache. (aDwD, Jon XIII)

This is the first precedent where we witness snow as a phenomenon in association with the Others and the wights they direct.. More, the aSoS Prologue also involves an assassination plot: Samwell and Jeor were to be killed. And later, Samwell’s POV in aSoS proves that the attack involves more than zombies alone: he meets with an Other as they flee from the Fist and ends up killing it with dragonglass.

The Other_by Dejan Delic
The Other by Dejan Delic

The wind sighed through the trees, driving a fine spray of snow into their faces. The cold was so bitter that Sam felt naked. […] There was only the [torch] Grenn carried, the flames rising from it like pale orange silks. He could see through them, to the black beyond. That torch will burn out soon, he thought, and we are all alone, without food or friends or fire. But that was wrong. They weren’t alone at all. […] Hoarfrost covered [the horse] like a sheen of frozen sweat, and a nest of stiff black entrails dragged from its open belly. On its back was a rider pale as ice. […] [Sam] was so scared he might have pissed himself all over again, but the cold was in him, a cold so savage that his bladder felt frozen solid. The Other slid gracefully from the saddle to stand upon the snow. Sword-slim it was, and milky white. Its armor rippled and shifted as it moved, and its feet did not break the crust of the new-fallen snow. […] The wights had been slow clumsy things, but the Other was light as snow on the wind. It slid away from Paul’s axe, armor rippling, and its crystal sword twisted and spun and slipped between the iron rings of Paul’s mail, through leather and wool and bone and flesh. It came out his back with a hissssssssssss and Sam heard Paul say, “Oh,” as he lost the axe. Impaled, his blood smoking around the sword, the big man tried to reach his killer with his hands and almost had before he fell. (aSoS, Samwell I)

Bran near Bloodraven's cave
Bran arriving at Bloodraven’s cave, Game of Thrones show

We get similar signs in Bran’s chapter with Coldhands in the final stretch before the entrance of Bloodraven’s cave: a raven screaming, sharp cold, and a bristling Summer.

Something about the way the raven screamed sent a shiver running up Bran’s spine. […] But the air was sharp and cold and full of fear. Even Summer was afraid. The fur on his neck was bristling. […] “They are here.” (aDwD, Bran II)

Hodor’s beard and mustache is iced.

Icicles hung from the brown briar of [Hodor’s] beard, and his mustache was a lump of frozen snot, glittering redly in the light of sunset. (aDwD, Bran II)

Bran mentions how Summer can smell Varamyr’s wolf pack when Summer is downwind from them. So, here George suggests the concept of smelling a threat when the wolf is downwind.

“Where?” Meera’s voice was hushed.
“Close. I don’t know. Somewhere.”
“Those wolves are close as well,” Bran warned them. “The ones that have been following us. Summer can smell them whenever we’re downwind.” (aDwD, Bran II)

And when Meera comments that the way looks clear, she sounds like readers thinking, George does not show us explicitly that Others are present north of the Wall at Castle Black.

Meera eyed the hill above. “The way looks clear.”
“Looks,” the ranger muttered darkly. “Can you feel the cold? There’s something here. Where are they?” (aDwD, Bran II)

But Coldhands corrects Meera and the reader: if someone feels an extreme cold, then they are there.

And when Bran’s tears freeze, Coldhands warns that if they are not here yet, they will be soon.

Bran blinked back a tear and felt it freeze upon his cheek. Coldhands took Hodor by the arm. “The light is fading. If they’re not here now, they will be soon. Come.” (aDwD, Bran II)

While Jon notes that Bowen Marsh has tears streaming from his eyes, we can put question marks behind the fact whether these tears are actually streaming and not instead frozen icicles on his cheeks. Meanwhile what causes Bowen Marsh to weep to begin with? Extreme cold dehydrates our eyes, prompting a response by our tear ducts to produce tears to water the eyes. This is the reason why Chett and Bran (and Hodor) produce tears. It is merely our assumption that Bowen is weeping for emotional reasons, instead as a physiological reflex to the extreme cold that Jon describes.

Note that the wight attack in Bran’s chapter happens in front of a cave with a magical ward like that of the Wall. And while the wights and the Others are unable to pass the magical ward into the cave, in Bran’s last chapter we learn that more wights keep gathering in front of the entrance and snow is piling up like a wall against the cave.

Snowflakes drifted down soundlessly to cloak the soldier pines and sentinels in white. The drifts grew so deep that they covered the entrance to the caves, leaving a white wall that Summer had to dig through whenever he went outside to join his pack and hunt. (aDwD, Bran III)

Both with the magical ward and this white snow wall in front of the entrance building, George is setting up a further parallel between the cave and the Wall.

Buried Zombies

Jon had two dead wildlings carried from the weirwood grove north of the Wall into Castle Black.

The Hornfoot man could not sit a saddle and had to be tied over the back of a garron like a sack of grain; so too the pale-faced crone with the stick-thin limbs, whom they had not been able to rouse. They did the same with the two corpses, to the puzzlement of Iron Emmett. “They will only slow us, my lord,” he said to Jon. “We should chop them up and burn them.”
“No,” said Jon. “Bring them. I have a use for them.” […] The living wildlings Jon sent off to have their wounds and frostbites tended. Some hot food and warm clothes would restore most of them, he hoped, though the Hornfoot man was like to lose both feet. The corpses he consigned to the ice cells. (aDwD, Jon VII)

Jon keeps them in the ice cells of the Wall and explains to Bowen Marsh he hopes they will turn and become wights in order to learn more about wights.

Finally the Lord Steward cleared his throat. “Your lordship knows best, I am sure. Might I ask about these corpses in the ice cells? They make the men uneasy. And to keep them under guard? Surely that is a waste of two good men, unless you fear that they …”
“… will rise? I pray they do.”
Septon Cellador paled. “Seven save us.” Wine dribbled down his chin in a red line. “Lord Commander, wights are monstrous, unnatural creatures. Abominations before the eyes of the gods. You … you cannot mean to try to talk with them?”
Can they talk?” asked Jon Snow. “I think not, but I cannot claim to know. Monsters they may be, but they were men before they died. How much remains? The one I slew was intent on killing Lord Commander Mormont. Plainly it remembered who he was and where to find him.” […] “My lord father used to tell me that a man must know his enemies. We understand little of the wights and less about the Others. We need to learn.” (aDwD, Jon VIII)

The two corpses in the ice cells are mentioned a third and last time in Jon’s last chapter, in relation to the snowstorm.

The switchback stair was buried almost to the first landing, Jon saw, and the wooden doors of the ice cells and storerooms had vanished behind a wall of white. “How many men do we have in ice cells?” he asked Bowen Marsh.
“Four living men. Two dead ones.” […] The corpses. Jon had almost forgotten them. He had hoped to learn something from the bodies they’d brought back from the weirwood grove, but the dead men had stubbornly remained dead. […] “What would the lord commander like us to do with his corpses?” asked Marsh when the living men had been moved.
“Leave them.” If the storm entombed them, well and good. He would need to burn them eventually, no doubt, but for the nonce they were bound with iron chains inside their cells. That, and being dead, should suffice to hold them harmless. (aDwD, Jon XIII)

Since the rule of three applies, readers speculate that we will see these two rise as wights at some point. And the readers who do suspect that the men screaming in the last paragraphs while Wyck and Marsh attempt to assassinate Jon are doing so on account of the appearance of wights, will often propose these two have been wighted and are wreaking havoc.

These two corpses serve to plant the seed of Others wightifying corpses at Castle Black, but I do not regard them to be the lethal threat: the iron chains will keep them in position. In the last mention of them though, George gives us a hint how to figure out the imminent threat: the snowstorm has created a wall of white, the same way a wall of snow was created at Bloodraven’s cave in Bran’s last chapter. When Bran traversed the fresh snow towards the cave in his second chapter, Bran and his friends are attacked by wights buried beneath the fresh snow that fell until three days before.

A hand, he saw, as the rest of the wight came bursting from beneath the snow. Hodor kicked at it, slamming a snow-covered heel full into the thing’s face, but the dead man did not even seem to feel it. Then the two of them were grappling, punching and clawing at each other, sliding down the hill. […] All around him, wights were rising from beneath the snow. (aDwD, Bran II)

And this brings me back to Borroq’s boar. Aside from Jon blaming Ghost’s aggression on Borroq’s boar, Jon’s thirteenth chapter also tells us that Borroq and his boar reside at Castle Black’s lichyard, and that the boar has been rooting in the soil of the graves.

Until such time, Borroq had taken up residence in one of the ancient tombs beside the castle lichyard. The company of men long dead seemed to suit him better than that of the living, and his boar seemed happy rooting amongst the graves, well away from other animals. (aDwD, Jon XIII)

Yes, Castle Black has a lichyard. In fact, George introduced us to the lichyard both early in aFfC and aDwD, when Gilly, Samwell and maester Aemon depart to Eastwatch. In Craster and His Wives I explain how Gilly serves as a stand-in character for the corpse queen (or the Mother of the Others), and having her be a commanding presence in the scene at the lichyard creates a visual pun of Gilly as corpse queen. The lichyard thus has already been framed in connection to the Others upon introduction.

While most of us did not forget about the two corpses in the ice cells or the boar, the lichyard has slipped the minds of most of us. Most readers hardly registered that the boar has basically been loosening the soil of those graves. Hmmm, not unlike Mance opening graves in search of a certain horn.

Ygritte: “[…] We opened half a hundred graves and let all those shades loose in the world, and never found the Horn of Joramun to bring this cold thing down!” (aSoS, Jon IV)

And what is certain: while septon Cellador is horrified over two chained corpses in an ice cell, neither he or any other, including Jon, had the wisdom to burn the hundreds if not thousands “men long dead” in there. So the two chained corpses in the ice cell are not the danger, but the potential army (company) of wights lying in wait beneath loosened soil are. Just as in Bran’s arc, the buried wights are the threat.

Another pointer to the true threat in parallel to Bran’s chapter comes from Mel.

“Borroq is the least of your concerns. This ranging …” (aDwD, Jon XIII)

Mel’s phrase is a parallel to Coldhands’ reply to Bran worrying over Varamyr’s wolf pack that Summer can smell when downwind to them.

“Wolves are the least of our woes,” said Coldhands. (aDwD, Bran II)

Notice that Mel begins to say something about a ranging, before Jon interrupts her. Mel never gets to finish her sentence, so this was purposefully added as a reference to Coldhands who is often called the ranger by Bran. And both the wolf pack and the boar have in common that they are a skinchanger’s animals.

During Jon’s last meeting with Marsh and Yarwyck, we get a foreshadowing.

As for Borroq, Othell Yarwyck claimed the woods north of Stonedoor were full of wild boars. Who was to say the skinchanger would not make his own pig army? (aDwD, Jon XIII)

Othell does not call it a boar army, but a pig army. In Craster’s Black Blooded Curse, I argued that George equates pigs symbolically to humans and eating pork to cannibalism. The most glaring examples are:

Nearby, a small girl pulled carrots from a garden, naked in the rain, while two women tied a pig for slaughter. The animal’s squeals were high and horrible, almost human in their distress. (aCoK, Jon III)

When [Samwell] looked at the fire, he thought he saw Bannen sitting up, his hands coiling into fists as if to fight off the flames that were consuming him, but it was only for an instant, before the swirling smoke hid all. The worst thing was the smell, though. If it had been a foul unpleasant smell he might have stood it, but his burning brother smelled so much like roast pork that Sam’s mouth began to water, […] (aSoS, Samwell II)

And in the latter association to pork or pigs, George included the image of a dead man rising. So, by association the foreshadowed pig army implies an army of wights. The sole potential wight army rising south of the Wall are those unburned dead in the lichyard.

The Magical Ward

I have more hints and foreshadowing in sky descriptions that predict the appearance of some Others north of Castle Black during Jon’s last chapter, but I am reserving them for another essay of the Blood Seal Thesis. If the detective work of Ghost’s body language in relation to the weather analysis and the precedent of prior experiences with the Others are not enough for you to seriously consider the presence of the Others at the other side of the Wall when Wyck and Bowen Marsh attack Jon as a valid proposal, then sky descriptions will not persuade you either.

I may have managed to persuade you to consider the possibility that the Others are here and that an army of wights is rising from their uprooted graves, causing men to scream in the background of the assassination attempt. But there is also one huge caveat: there seems to be an enormous difference between the Others reactivating and directing wights like Othor and Jafer, who were already wighted long before they were carried through Castle Black’s tunnel by the Night’s Watch and wightifying the dead south of the Wall. After all, the Wall is not just a physical barrier, but a magical one too.

“The Wall. The Wall is more than just ice and stone, [Coldhands] said. There are spells woven into it . . . old ones, and strong. He cannot pass beyond the Wall.” It grew very quiet in the castle kitchen then. […] Beyond the gates the monsters live, and the giants and the ghouls, he remembered Old Nan saying, but they cannot pass so long as the Wall stands strong. So go to sleep, my little Brandon, my baby boy. You needn’t fear. There are no monsters here. (aSoS, Bran IV)

In fact, the magical ward is far more important than the physical barrier. Bloodraven’s cave has a similar ward, but the entrance allows the living to cross to and fro since there is no physical barrier.

“Can you feel the cold? There’s something here. Where are they?
Inside the cave?” suggested Meera.
“The cave is warded. They cannot pass.” The ranger used his sword to point. “You can see the entrance there. Halfway up, between the weirwoods, that cleft in the rock.”
“I see it,” said Bran. Ravens were flying in and out.
“There’s a passage there. Steep and twisty at first, a runnel through the rock. If you can reach it, you’ll be safe.”
“What about you?
The cave is warded.” (aDwD, Bran II)

How much this is a barrier I already emphasized in the Night’s King series, and I argued that one of the uses of the Night’s King to the corpse queen was as a smuggler to get her south of the Wall, like Davos had to smuggle Mel beyond the ward of the Storm’s End to birth her shadow assassin. It may not be a barrier against smell, wind and snow, but if it was never a barrier against the Others raising an army of the dead of a lichyard, it makes little sense the Others bothered with Othor and Jafer being carried through the Wall by the Night’s Watch. I expect the magical ward from preventing the Others to wightify anyone who was not yet a wight north of the Wall, even though it allows them to activate a sleeper wight.

In other words something must occur to the warding spell of the Wall, before the Others can raise the dead of the lichyard. The Blood Seal Thesis proposes that a warding spell must be locked in place with a blood seal. Since a seal is also a stamp, this implies that the warding spell becomes imprinted with that particular blood mix of the person shedding their blood to fixate it. As a consequence the seal can only be broken by shedding the blood of someone with a similar blood make up. In other words, the seal is a person. And obviously, I am proposing that Jon is a blood match and therefore the seal.

So, when Wyck grazes Jon’s neck and his blood drops onto the snow that was also blown against the ice of the Wall, the Wall’s warding spell was broken. The circumstantial evidence for the proposed concept of a Blood Seal is too expansive for this essay, but I will provide you with hints and references to the breaking of the magical ward and how this is tied to the foreshadowing of a wight army.

In the paragraph where Jon reveals to the reader that Borroq has made the lichyard his temporary residence with his boar, we also learn where Borroq is to live permanently.

The skinchanger [Borroq] was to accompany Soren Shieldbreaker to Stonedoor once the wayns carrying the Sealskinner‘s clan to Greenguard returned. (aDwD, Jon XIII)

It is quite doubtful whether Borroq and his boar will ever survive the night of Jon’s last chapter in aDwD to move to Stonedoor, so this plan only serves to give the reader hints, and the names used are eye opening: Shieldbreaker, Sealskinner, Greenguard and Stonedoor. In-world these are the names of two castles of the Night’s Watch and two names of prominent wildling leaders. The foreshadowing does not involve the actual locations or these two men, but the story these names foretell.

Let us start with the name Greenguard. The warding spells of the Wall, Storm’s End and Bloodraven’s cave are all attributed to children of the forest, who practice green magic.

“Legend has it that the giants helped raise the Wall, using their great strength to wrestle the blocks of ice into place. […] These same legends also say that the children of the forest—who did not themselves build walls of either ice or stone—would contribute their magic to the construction.” (tWoIaF – the Wall and Beyond: the Night’s Watch)

“A seventh castle he raised, most massive of all. Some said the children of the forest helped him build [Storm’s End], shaping the stones with magic; (aCoK, Catelyn III)

Hence we can say that a green guard is a green magic warding spell. And obviously in this case this is about the magical ward of the Wall. Though I do believe the conquering of Storm’s End by Aegon and the breach of Bloodraven’s cave may serve as a parallel in tWoW.

Ramsay Bolton after Moat Cailin, by Gibilynx

In the foreshadowing the Sealskinner is on his way to this green guard, or the magical Wall. We recognize a reference to the blood seal concept that I propose in the first part. Meanwhile Skinner is the name of one of Ramsay’s Bastard Boys. Ramsay Bolton has several men-at-arms appointed by Roose to be of Ramsay’s service. Skinner was the one who flayed Theon’s fingers on Ramsay’s orders. He also claims that Ramsay killed his trueborn brother Domeric Bolton. It is possible that Skinner is one of the hunting party that may be on its way to Castle Black, but Skinner’s name is mostly yet another reference, to George’s novelette The Skin Trade. In that story, the Skinner is a supernatural shapeshifting assassin who in one of its shapes has knives for fingers. It uses mirrors as doors to traverse dimensions.

Skinner,” Steven called. The surface of the mirrors seemed to ripple and bulge, like a wave cresting on some quicksilver sea. The fog was thinning, Willie realized with sudden terror; he could see it clearer now, and he knew it could see him. And suddenly Willie Flambeaux knew what was happening, knew that when the fog cleared the mirrors wouldn’t be mirrors anymore; they’d be doors, doors, and the skinner would come…(Dreamsongs II, the Skin Trade)

The Skinner’s targets are werewolves on Steven’s orders. Steven has werewolf blood, but so pureblooded (inbred) that he himself cannot work the transformation from man into werewolf. But he discovered that when he wears the skin or pelt of another werewolf who can work the change, that he can steal their power for a short while. Both The Fattest Leech and Melanie Lot Seven have pointed out how Steven is a proto-Ramsay, while Willie Flambeaux (flaming sword), a werewolf of mutt descent (bastard) is a proto-Jon.

The above quote with Steven calling for the skinner to go after Willie via the mirrors follows a scene where Willie was wounded and his blood ended up on the mirrors of a funhouse.  

Willie looked into the mirrors. The reflections were gone. Willie, Steven, the moon, all gone. There was blood on the mirrors and they were full of fog, a silvery pale fog that shimmered as it moved. Something was moving through the fog, sliding from mirror to mirror to mirror, around and around. Something hungry that wanted to get out. (Dreamsongs II, the Skin Trade)

So, for aSoIaF, skinner serves as a double reference to both the supernatural Others as well as Ramsay, who flays people and steals first his brother’s birthright, then the Hornwood lands and finally Winterfell via a marriage to a fake wolf. And regardless of the real author of the Pink Letter, it was signed and “sealed” in Ramsay’s name.

Bastard, was the only word written outside the scroll. No Lord Snow or Jon Snow or Lord Commander. Simply Bastard. And the letter was sealed with a smear of hard pink wax. “You were right to come at once,” Jon said. You were right to be afraid. He cracked the seal, flattened the parchment, and read. (aDwD, Jon XIII)

That Pink Letter itself serves as a sealskinner. In my proposal of the blood seal concept, Jon himself is the blood seal that preserves the Wall’s green magical guard or ward. And the assassination attempt on Jon’s life occurs after he read the Pink Letter in the shield hall. And of course we can also see how the Sealskinner is a dual reference to the Others as supernatural beings coming through a mirror after the blood seal of the green guard is cracked.

The Shieldbreaker does not require much explanation. That leaves us with Stonedoor. The word door aligns with the Skinner reference: a mirror becomes a door. So why stone? Well, we tend to think of the Wall as being physically made from ice, but the Wall is made from earth, stone and ice. What happens if the magical ward is broken? Others can do with ice whatever they wish: dissolve it into mist for example. What remains of the Wall if they do? All that remains is stone section, and then the ice mirror has turned into a stone door. And without the ward or a cracked seal on the ward, the Others’ magic can raise that “pig army” from the graves. It is after all at Stonedoor that Yarwyck foretells Borroq might be able to raise a pig army.

So, basically that one sentence with those four foreshadowing references can be translated to mean that after the arrival of the Others and the Pink Letter to the Wall, the shield will be broken and turned into a stone door as well as an army of wights will rise from the lichyard. And since there is plenty of circumstantial evidence to support the proposal that the Others are at the other side of the Wall at Castle Black the day the Pink Letter arrived, the breaking of the shield of the ream occurs that very same night. (For an extensive analysis on hints and clues for the Blood Seal, see Quoth the Raven)

Conclusion (tl;tr)

Tormund reveals that the Others have nibbled at his thousands of wildlings during their trek south, and he is unwilling to reveal too much about them north of the Wall. The last wildlings that pass through the Wall are Tormund’s rearguard and best men. They are last as their main responsibility is to guard and keep other people alive. Borroq and his boar belong to Tormund’s rearguard and he is the very last wildling to pass through. We can safely assume this is because as skinchanger with far more experience with the Others than Jon, Borroq can raise the alarm the earliest when the Others are near. When the wild boar changes his stance to that of a charge, this is not related to Ghost or Jon, but immediately after the boar is snuffling the ground and snow is falling down. And this is followed by Borroq’ warning that the Others are coming.

The aggressive behavior of Ghost, including towards Jon, and Mormont’s raven acting in high alert is caused by them smelling the Others coming for Castle Black, for this behavior coincides with a snowsky rolling in from the north and any prior signs of the nearness of the Others. In these examples involving canines, the animal even turns or snarls at their caretaker. Later in the day, Ghost and the raven relax. This coincides with the wind turning, and blowing from the south. They are calmer and less aggressive from this point onwards, because the Others are now downwind, and neither Ghost or the raven can smell them anymore.

The proposals that Ghost and the raven are aggressive because of the plot to assassinate Jon are wrong. Ghost shows no aggression towards Bowen Marsh whatsoever, but relaxed dominance. Meanwhile Ghost nearly attacks Jon himself far ealier, when the snowsky was drifting in from the north.

Northern winds, snowfall, alarmed and aggressive, fearful animals, smoking wounds, extreme cold and the reflext from the tear ducts to water the eyes with tears freezing on the spot, and icicles on beard and mustache are all visible tell-tale signs that accompany a trap or attack by either themselves or wights. Since all these follow one after the other throughout Jon’s last day in aDwD, this mounts to a pile of circumstantial evidence to take the notion that the Others are present at the other side of the Wall quite serious.

On top of that we have numerous foreshadowing hints that not the two dead men chained in the ice cells are the danger, but the hundreds if not thousands forgotten dead brothers buried in the lichyard. Borroq’s boar has been rooting through the soil of those graves, thereby loosening the earth, making it easier for wights to rise from the lichyard. The few Others waiting at the other side of the Wall at Castle Black do not need to bring an army of wights from Hardhome. Once the magical ward of the Wall cracks or breaks, their magic can raise a lichyard ‘pig’ army. And this cracking or breaking is tied to the assassination attempt of Jon. It is thus entirely possible that the men screaming in the background while Wick slashes at Jon for a second time are screaming because dead men and dismembered arms come back to life.

What use is a Night’s King?

The previous essay on timeline stuff provided all the evidence to dissociate the Night’s King from the Long Night event. This has major implications and limitations on the speculated use of a Night’s King. For one, the Others were absolutely fine during the generation lasting Long Night without having a Night’s King to lead them. And if they did not need a Nigh’s King to lead them during the Long Night, they did not need him as leader two centuries later or in the present story.

That does not mean the Night’s King had no use, but it was not “to lead the Others”. Others can entrap and kill individuals and whole armies even fine by themselves (and with wights). Please just let go of any remnant of the show’s Night King. No human character in the books of the year 300 AC will end up looking like show NK or ever have such a “lead the Others role” – not Stannis, not Euron, not Jon.

Instead the Night’s King purpose is foremostly to sacrifice offspring (but sheep and dogs will do too), with which the corpse queen produces more Others. The historical Night’s King was also of use to smuggle the corpse queen south of the Wall that no white shadow could pass from the North. And finally he was an instrument in binding people’s will.



So, if not to lead, then what use is a Night’s King to the Others? Maester Yandel’s version of the legend will never help us figure that out, since the Citadel cleaned up any reference to the Others in whatever versions they have recorded in books. If it were up to the Citadel, the Night’s King only sin was declaring himself king and taking a queen as Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch. “Others? Not there! Never existed! Nothing to see here.”

So, we must turn to Old Nan’s story, because at least that version mentions the Others.

After his fall, when it was found he had been sacrificing to the Others, all records of Night’s King had been destroyed, his very name forbidden. (aSoS, Bran IV)

Old Nan’s version claims that he was found to have sacrificed to the Others, and specifies that this was the very reason why his records were destroyed and his name forbidden. It was not for declaring himself king or taking a wife, but sacrificing to the Others. This was his gravest offence to both the Stark of Winterfell and Joramun, and therefore it must be the most crucial use a Night’s King figure is for the Others.

His second use for the Others seems to be related to this corpse queen.

A woman was his downfall; a woman glimpsed from atop the Wall, with skin as white as the moon and eyes like blue stars. […] , though her skin was cold as ice, […] (aSoS, Bran IV)

Old Nan’s tale describes her in far more detail than Maester Yandel. Her skin is white as the moon, cold as ice and her eyes are like blue stars. Yandel but describes her as being pale as a corpse. He thus omits descriptive details about her, and instead goes into a tangent of alternative theories on whose daughter she might have been – theories from archmaesters who dismiss the existence of Others.

In the Citadel, the archmaesters largely dismiss these tales—though some allow that there may have been a Lord Commander who attempted to carve out a kingdom for himself in the earliest days of the Watch. Some suggest that perhaps the corpse queen was a woman of the Barrowlands, a daughter of the Barrow King who was then a power in his own right, and oft associated with graves. (tWoIaF – The Wall and Beyond: the Night’s Watch)

Maester Yandel’s agenda is the same one as that of archmaesters: steer the reader away from the belief in magical and unnatural beings, and instead point them towards believing the tales are but exaggerated claims of a mere mortal. But we know what an Other looks like: a white shadow, their body a type of ice, extremely cold, and their eyes are like blue stars.

Meanwhile, Old Nan describes an Other without claiming it to be one. In fact, Old Nan herself seems not to be aware of it herself. When Bran asked her in aGoT to tell him a story about the Others, Old Nan describes them in the most general terms – white walkers, cold and dead things – focusing more on their hatred and their deeds, never their appearance.

“Fear is for the long night, when the sun hides its face for years at a time, and little children are born and live and die all in darkness while the direwolves grow gaunt and hungry, and the white walkers move through the woods.” […] “In that darkness, the Others came for the first time,” she said as her needles went click click click. “They were cold things, dead things, that hated iron and fire and the touch of the sun, and every creature with hot blood in its veins. They swept over holdfasts and cities and kingdoms, felled heroes and armies by the score, riding their pale dead horses and leading hosts of the slain. All the swords of men could not stay their advance, and even maidens and suckling babes found no pity in them. They hunted the maids through frozen forests, and fed their dead servants on the flesh of human children.” (aGoT, Bran IV)

When Old Nan is asked explicitly about the Others, she mentions everything she can think of, but nothing about eyes blue like stars, or skin white as the moon and cold as ice. So, we must conclude that Old Nan was unaware that she describes an Other with her details on the corpse queen. And that makes her description of the corpse queen highly reliable, even if it was a retelling of a tale thousands of years old.

And when Gilly uses the same description about the cold gods, the white shadows, to Jon, he (and we the readers) instantly regard it as confirmation that Gilly has seen and is describing Others.

The cold gods,” [Gilly] said. “The ones in the night. The white shadows.”
[…] “What color are their eyes?” he asked her.
Blue. As bright as blue stars, and as cold.”
She has seen them, he thought. Craster lied. (aCoK, Jon II)

Hence, with the Citadel pushing to make the corpse queen out to be human, dropping the description of her that makes her inhuman, and with Old Nan describing an Other unwittingly in the same manner Gilly described them to Jon, we can conclude the corpse queen was indeed an Other.

Unlike any other tale or encounter with the Others we witness, this makes her a unique Other. Any Other we have ever seen on page has a male appearance. Craster’s wives refer to them as sons or brothers, and thus male.

The boy’s brothers,” said the old woman on the left. “Craster’s sons. The white cold’s rising out there, crow. I can feel it in my bones. These poor old bones don’t lie. They’ll be here soon, the sons.” (aSoS, Samwell II)

On its own, the reason why Craster’s older wives refer to the Others as Craster’s sons, may be nothing more than these grieving mothers expressing a hope or belief that their babies survived and were transformed into Others. However, we do have Will’s eyewitness account of the aGoT Prologue where he describes the Others as appearing each other’s twins.

They emerged silently from the shadows, twins to the first. Three of them … four … five … (aGoT, Prologue)

And Jon concludes that Gilly saw the Others after her description of them, despite the fact that Jon himself has never laid eyes on one himself.

She has seen them, [Jon] thought. Craster lied. (aCoK, Jon II)

If Gilly saw them, then certainly the much older wives have seen them numerous times throughout the years. As older wives, they would know young Craster’s features. For them to refer to these twin-appearing Others as Craster’s sons, there is reason to believe they observed a likeness between the Others coming to pick up the sacrifices and (the younger) Craster. Combined with the hope their sons somehow survived, Craster’s wives jumped to the conclusion they are Craster’s sons.

Craster’s wives are not the sole people who believe that Others are partially human children. Jon refers to Old Nan telling stories about wildlings having intercourse with Others to birth offspring.

“At Winterfell one of the serving women told us stories,” Jon went on. “She used to say that there were wildlings who would lay with the Others to birth half-human children.” (aCoK, Jon III)

And these “hearth tales” match with Old Nan claiming that the Night’s King gave his seed to the corpse queen.

Fearing nothing, he chased her and caught her and loved her, though her skin was cold as ice, and when he gave his seed to her he gave his soul as well. (aSoS, Bran IV)

Regardless how it works, or whether it was true whether the Night’s King slept with the corpse queen or not, it makes clear that the corpse queen ought to be regarded as a creator or birther of Others, as a Mother of Others.

The hearth tale and the seeming claim that the Night’s King gave his seed to the corpse queen also matches with how Melisandre produces shadow assassins in the shape of Stannis

Melisandre birthing a shadow, by Anja Dalisa

“Is the brave Ser Onions so frightened of a passing shadow? Take heart, then. Shadows only live when given birth by light, and the king’s fires burn so low I dare not draw off any more to make another son. It might well kill him.” Melisandre moved closer. “With another man, though . . . a man whose flames still burn hot and high . . . if you truly wish to serve your king’s cause, come to my chamber one night. I could give you pleasure such as you have never known, and with your life-fire I could make . . .” (aSoS, Davos III)

Melisandre had thrown back her cowl and shrugged out of the smothering robe. Beneath, she was naked, and huge with child. Swollen breasts hung heavy against her chest, and her belly bulged as if near to bursting. […] Her eyes were hot coals, and the sweat that dappled her skin seemed to glow with a light of its own. Melisandre shone. Panting, she squatted and spread her legs. Blood ran down her thighs, black as ink. Her cry might have been agony or ecstasy or both. And Davos saw the crown of the child’s head push its way out of her. Two arms wriggled free, grasping, black fingers coiling around Melisandre’s straining thighs, pushing, until the whole of the shadow slid out into the world and rose taller than Davos, tall as the tunnel, towering above the boat. He had only an instant to look at it before it was gone, twisting between the bars of the portcullis and racing across the surface of the water, but that instant was long enough. He knew that shadow. As he knew the man who’d cast it. (aCoK, Davos II)

“Robar, no, listen.” Catelyn seized his arm. “You do her wrong, it was not her. Help her! Hear me, it was Stannis.” The name was on her lips before she could think how it got there, but as she said it, she knew that it was true. “I swear it, you know me, it was Stannis killed him.”
The young rainbow knight stared at this madwoman with pale and frightened eyes. “Stannis? How?”
“I do not know. Sorcery, some dark magic, there was a shadow, a shadow.” Her own voice sounded wild and crazed to her, but the words poured out in a rush as the blades continued to clash behind her. “A shadow with a sword, I swear it, I saw.” […] “I saw a shadow. I thought it was Renly’s shadow at the first, but it was his brother’s.” (aCoK, Catelyn IV)

Jon’s hearth tale, the twin-looking Others, Old Nan’s version of the Night’s King and Mel’s shadow babies looking like Stannis’ shadow all seem to point to a human man having to sleep and give his semen to the corpse queen so she could produce white shadows.

But how does this square with Craster’s sacrifices?

“At Winterfell one of the serving women told us stories,” Jon went on. “She used to say that there were wildlings who would lay with the Others to birth half-human children.”
Hearth tales. Does Craster seem less than human to you?
In half a hundred ways. “He gives his sons to the wood.”
A long silence. Then: “Yes.” And “Yes,” the raven muttered, strutting. “Yes, yes, yes.”
“You knew?”
Smallwood told me. Long ago. All the rangers know, though few will talk of it.”
“Did my uncle know?”
“All the rangers,” Mormont repeated. “You think I ought to stop him. Kill him if need be.” The Old Bear sighed. “Were it only that he wished to rid himself of some mouths, I’d gladly send Yoren or Conwys to collect the boys. We could raise them to the black and the Watch would be that much the stronger. But the wildlings serve crueler gods than you or I. These boys are Craster’s offerings. His prayers, if you will.” (aCoK, Jon II)

Craster and his wives
Craster by Arantza Sestayo, asoiaf 2022 calendar

Craster is not a half-Other, nor does he sleep with a female Other. He has a harem of wives – almost all his own daughters – and with these he breeds either new future wives or sacrificial sons for the Others. Clearly, the corpse queen never required the Night’s King seed to create or birth more Others, because she (or a female descendant of hers) does not need it from Craster either.

The claim that the Night’s King slept with the corpse queen or gave her his seed in intercourse is as Jeor says “a hearth tale”. Survivors of an encounter with Others simply assumed there had to have been intercourse, as most lifeforms reproduce this way.  Surely survivors, Craster’s wives and the many generations in between speculated about how Others came to be. They just had no forum or twitteros or youtube to debate over it as we do. Nevertheless, the Others clearly are not like every other lifeform, and that makes it entirely possible they do not require a man’s semen.

In fact, there is an alternative to the meaning of “giving his seed”. It can also be used as an archaic synonym to offspring. We see George use seed in this way exactly in Dany’s chapters for example, and it is also how bastard children of Targaryens are called – dragonseed or seed.

I am Daenerys Stormborn, Princess of Dragonstone, of the blood and seed of Aegon the Conqueror. (aGoT, Daenerys I)

She was the seed of kings and conquerors, and so too the child inside her. She must not forget. (aGoT, Daenerys VI)

These happy bastards were said to have been “born of dragonseed,” and in time became known simply as “seeds.” Even after the end of the right of the first night, certain Targaryens continued to dally with the daughters of innkeeps and the wives of fishermen, so seeds and the sons of seeds were plentiful on Dragonstone. […] Not all those who came forward in answer to the prince’s call were seeds, nor even the sons or grandsons of seeds. […] Sheepstealer proved easier to flush out, but he remained a vicious, ill-tempered beast, who killed more seeds than the three “castle dragons” together. (The Princess and the Queen)

Old Nan’s version of the tale has come down the generations orally for thousands of years. The phrase “gave her his seed” may have originally meant “he gave her his offspring” (sacrifice his offspring to her). Over time, some storyteller misinterpreted it to mean sexual intercourse, keeping the phrase but putting it in the context of “making love to her”. Maester Yandel took that to be its meaning, dropped the phrase and translates it to “allegedly bedded her”. But Craster’s sacrifice disproves that the corpse queen needs to produce more Others the same way that a shadowbinder of Asshai has to do it.


Another important factor of the legend with regards to the corpse queen is that the Night’s King takes her to the Nightfort.

He brought her back to the Nightfort and proclaimed her a queen and himself her king, […] (aSoS, Bran IV)

This is presented as almost an afterthought, but as an Other the corpse queen could never manage to get south of the Wall without a human’s help. Firstly, it is an enormous physical barrier, but not necessarily one that keeps wildlings from climbing it at areas where no watchman patrols to send arrows, spears and tar down on them. Icy beings like the Others and wights may be able to climb it too, out of sight from obsidian and fire. A bigger issue is the fact that the Wall is also a magical barrier. Like Storm’s End, spells have been woven into the Wall as well as the Black Gate that prevents a shadow from passing.

Bran Stark going through the Black Gate, by Yasmingz

Samwell : “The Wall. The Wall is more than just ice and stone, he said. There are spells woven into it . . . old ones, and strong. [Coldhands] cannot pass beyond the Wall.“(aSoS, Bran IV)

Coldhands cannot pass through the Black Gate, not even when it is open. He may not be under the control of the Others, because he does not have blue starry eyes, but he is otherwise very much like a wight – undead.

“He wasn’t a green man. He wore blacks, like a brother of the Watch, but he was pale as a wight, with hands so cold that at first I was afraid. The wights have blue eyes, though, and they don’t have tongues, or they’ve forgotten how to use them.” The fat man turned to Jojen. “He’ll be waiting. We should go. Do you have anything warmer to wear? The Black Gate is cold, and the other side of the Wall is even colder. You—”
Why didn’t he come with you?” Meera gestured toward Gilly and her babe. “They came with you, why not him? Why didn’t you bring him through this Black Gate too?”
He . . . he can’t.

Coldhands, by Eva Toker

I mentioned how the Wall and Storm’s End share the same type of warding spells. It is for this reason that Melisandre has to be rowed into the castle walls of Storm’s End, where she births her shadow baby in order to assassinate Cortnay Penrose, while she did not require anyone to row her into Renly’s camp.

As Davos unshipped the oars and slid them into the choppy black water, he said, “Who rowed you to Renly?”
There was no need,” she said. “He was unprotected. But here . . . this Storm’s End is an old place. There are spells woven into the stones. Dark walls that no shadow can passancient, forgotten, yet still in place.” (aCoK, Davos II)

We can compare Mel’s shadow assassin that killed Renly to the Others attacking humanity during the Long Night. Renly was not behind a magic wall, but in the open field, and a shadow assassin could kill him easily.

“I beg you in the name of the Mother,” Catelyn began when a sudden gust of wind flung open the door of the tent. She thought she glimpsed movement, but when she turned her head, it was only the king’s shadow shifting against the silken walls. She heard Renly begin a jest, his shadow moving, lifting its sword, black on green, candles guttering, shivering, something was queer, wrong, and then she saw Renly’s sword still in its scabbard, sheathed still, but the shadowsword . . .
“Cold,” said Renly in a small puzzled voice, a heartbeat before the steel of his gorget parted like cheesecloth beneath the shadow of a blade that was not there. He had time to make a small thick gasp before the blood came gushing out of his throat. (aCoK, Catelyn IV)

Likewise, the First Men had no magic wall to protect themselves from the white shadows during the Long Night.

But once humanity huddles safely behind a spell-warded Wall that prevents white shadows from passing through or climbing across, the corpse queen herself, producer of white shadows, needs a smuggler to get her beyond the Wall, so she can produce Others there and let them loose to do her killing, exactly like Melisandre was smuggled behind the walls of Storm’s End by Davos. And so, the Night’s King secondary use is that of a smuggler. 

The mystery remains though, how did the Night’s King smuggle the corpse queen to the Nightfort? Clearly white shadows or Others cannot pass the Black Gate. Even wights, like Coldhands, cannot go through. Nor can dragons fly across, as Alysanne Targaryen discovers when thrice she attempts to fly beyond the Wall on Silverwing.

“Thrice I flew Silverwing high above Castle Black, and thrice I tried to take her north beyond the Wall,” Alysanne wrote to Jaehaerys, “but every time she veered back south again and refused to go. Never before has she refused to take me where I wished to go. I laughed about it when I came down again, so the black brothers would not realize anything was amiss, but it troubled me and it troubles me still.” (Fire & Blood, Jaehaerys and Alysanne – Their Triumphs and Tragedies)

Remember that dragons are referred to as winged shadows and are magical beings, even though they are flesh, bone and blood.

Wings shadowed her fever dreams. […] A great knife of pain ripped down her back, and she felt her skin tear open and smelled the stench of burning blood and saw the shadow of wings. (aGoT, Daenerys IX)

“It were the black one,” the man said, in a Ghiscari growl, “the winged shadow. He come down from the sky and … and …” (aDwD, Daenerys I)

Through curtains of fire great winged shadows wheeled against a hard blue sky. (aDwD, Melisandre I)

Wighted Othor and Jafer Flowers, however, are carried through a normal gate tunnel, when already necromanced north of the Wall, given they already have the blue starry eyes and black blooded extremities. They are of course unanimated, but that is purely to trick the Night’s Watch into believing them just dead so they will carry them into Castle Black.

They wrapped the dead men in cloaks, but when Hake and Dywen tried to tie one onto a horse, the animal went mad, screaming and rearing, lashing out with its hooves, even biting at Ketter when he ran to help. The rangers had no better luck with the other garrons; not even the most placid wanted any part of these burdens. In the end they were forced to hack off branches and fashion crude slings to carry the corpses back on foot. […] High above, the men on the Wall saw the column approaching. Jon heard the deep, throaty call of the watchman’s great horn, calling out across the miles; a single long blast that shuddered through the trees and echoed off the ice. […] Bowen Marsh was waiting at the first gate as they led their garrons through the icy tunnel. (aGoT, Jon VII)

Mel too is shown to walk north of the Wall by going through the normal tunnel.

A crowd of crows had gathered around the gate by the time Melisandre and her escort arrived, but they made way for the red priestess. […] The guards on the gate were not queen’s men, but they passed her all the same. It was cold and dark beneath the ice, in the narrow tunnel that crooked and slithered through the Wall. Morgan went before her with a torch and Merrel came behind her with an axe. […] By the time the three of them emerged north of the Wall the snow was falling steadily. (aDwD, Melisandre I)

You may not consider this as strange, because Melisandre seems to be of human origin no matter how old she is. And yet, she considers other people as mortals and it is implied that Mel herself wears a glamor to disguise her true form and age.

Food. Yes, I should eat. Some days she forgot. R’hllor provided her with all the nourishment her body needed, but that was something best concealed from mortal men. (aDwD, Melisandre I)

Important to remember is that there would have been few castles and less normal gate tunnels passing through the Wall in the era of the Night’s King then there are now. The Nightfort would only have had the Black Gate in use at the time. The other main castles would have been Eastguard, Westguard by the bridge and the Shadowtower. All these are located at potential passages not protected by a magical Wall and would have been needed to safeguard the sea passages close to shore as well as the gorge and bridge of skulls. As for Free Folk there would not have been thousands and thousands of Free Folk yet in less than 200 years after the Long Night, north of the Wall. Those who did cross to the Northern side to flee from petty kings, would have had plenty of game and good long summers for gardening and growing crops. Without much raiding, the Night’s Watch would not have the need to journey north of the Wall all that much, and therefore no need for more gates to cross. Their watch would have consisted mostly on surveying from atop the Wall. The normal tunnels throughout the Wall at the nineteen castles total would not be built until long after the Night’s King. This means that the corpse queen had no normal tunnel to get through either.

So, strictly speaking if the Night’s King managed to get the corpse queen through the Black Gate, she was a non magical inhuman creature of a different sort than the Others she produces. While, I can imagine her to have a whole different nature and form than the white shadows, I doubt very much she is solely a sorceress, but in fact as “magical” a being as dragons are. Alternatively, she went the long way around – by sea in the east or across the bridge in the west – because there no normal tunnels yet.

We need more information from events of tWoW to be sure. Beyond direct scenes with Others at the Wall, chapters with Mel at the Wall and Euron at the Hightower are of particular interest. For Melisandre a chapter in tWoW at the Nightfort and its Black Gate might be very enlightening. Melisandre knows of the gate, because Samwell confirmed its existence in the Nightfort to Stannis with Mel present.

Stannis considered Sam again. “I am told that you and this wildling girl passed beneath the Wall, through some magic gate.
“The B-black Gate,” Sam stammered. “Below the Nightfort.”
“The Nightfort is the largest and oldest of the castles on the Wall,” the king said. “That is where I intend to make my seat, whilst I fight this war. You will show me this gate.” (aSoS, Samwell V)

Though it seems Stannis and Mel visited the Nightfort together with Othel Yarwyck in between aSoS and Samwell leaving to Oldtown.

“We have ceded you the Nightfort.”
Rats and ruins. It is a niggard’s gift that costs the giver nothing. Your own man Yarwyck says it will be half a year before the castle can be made fit for habitation.” (aDwD, Jon I)

And George confirmed to a fan by email before the publishing of aDwD that Mel found the Black Gate by herself without Samwell’s help.

Hope you’re doing well! I hope this is a somewhat innocuous email that you might answer for me. Melisandre mentions that she expects Sam to show her (and Stannis, if I recall) the Black Gate under the Nightfort. There’s no mention of Sam’s having left Castle Black before taking ship to Braavos, so am I correct in assuming that he never returned to the Nightfort to show the gate to Melisandre?
I am sure she found it on her own. (SSM, May 24 2010, Melisandre and the Black Gate)

And in that respect the chapter where Euron manages to gain entry into the Hightower or not, will be quite interesting too, both to shed some light whether the Hightower indeed has warding spells such as Storm’s End and the Wall and whether something is happening to Euron that may or may not permit him to pass.

Regardless of this, both Euron and Mel have in common that they journey by boat or ship.

  • Davos rows Mel into a secret landing beyond the walls of Storm’s End.
  • Though sailing from Dragonstone to Eastwatch seems the logical fastest route, I must note that Stannis and Mel both journey along the northern side of the Wall from Eastwatch to intercept Mance’s army (their other side of the Wall).
  • Euron’s main form of transport is his ship. Yes, he is Ironborn, but that may be the reason why George chose to craft an Ironborn featuring Night’s King aspects.

Especially with Storm’s End, the smuggling via row boat stands out. The assassination on Renly made sense; that of the castellan Cortnay Penrose much less so. Mel wanted Edric Storm to burn him so she could transform the stone dragons of Dragonstone into living ones, she claimed, but that is such a wackjob plan. To top it all: Edric Storm was rescued by Davos. So it was a crazy plot for zero result, and almost purely written to showcase how Mel birthed a shadow baby behind a warded wall and how she got rowed there.

davos smuggling mel_by aminomailer
Davos smuggling Mel, by aminomailer

The seaward side of Storm’s End perched upon a pale white cliff, the chalky stone sloping up steeply to half again the height of the massive curtain wall. A mouth yawned in the cliff, and it was that Davos steered for, as he had sixteen years before. The tunnel opened on a cavern under the castle, where the storm lords of old had built their landing. […] Then they were past, engulfed in darkness, and the waters smoothed. The little boat slowed and swirled. The sound of their breathing echoed until it seemed to surround them. Davos had not expected the blackness. The last time, torches had burned all along the tunnel, and the eyes of starving men had peered down through the murder holes in the ceiling. The portcullis was somewhere ahead, he knew. Davos used the oars to slow them, and they drifted against it almost gently.
“Have we passed within the walls?”
Yes. Beneath. But we can go no farther. The portcullis goes all the way to the bottom. And the bars are too closely spaced for even a child to squeeze through.” (aCoK, Davos II)

Euron Greyjoy by Mike Hallstein
King Euron Greyjoy, by Mike Hallstein

Now let us see if we see something similar for Euron. Is he smuggling a shadowy queen to Westeros? Initially he seems to be without an obvious woman of magical importance such as Melisandre is to Stannis by his side. Then we are led to believe Euron wants Dany for a wife.

“When the kraken weds the dragon, brother, let all the world beware.”br>What dragon?” said Victarion, frowning.
“The last of her line. They say she is the fairest woman in the world. Her hair is silver-gold, and her eyes are amethysts . . . but you need not take my word for it, brother. Go to Slaver’s Bay, behold her beauty, and bring her back to me.” (aFfC, The Reaver)

That starts to sound more like a smuggle attempt of a woman that can compare to the Night’s King chasing the corpse queen, with a skin so “fair” it is as white as the moon and with eyes so blue as sapphire stars. Except when Damphair has a vision of Euron on the Iron Throne, we do not see a woman by his side having any hint of being Dany.

[Damphair] saw his brother on the Iron Throne again, but Euron was no longer human. He seemed more squid than man, a monster fathered by a kraken of the deep, his face a mass of writhing tentacles. Beside him stood a shadow in woman’s form, long and tall and terrible, her hands alive with pale white fire. Dwarves capered for their amusement, male and female, naked and misshapen, locked in carnal embrace, biting and tearing at each other as Euron and his mate laughed and laughed and laughed … (tWoW, The Forsaken)

People have speculated who this woman might be: ranging from Melisandre, to Cersei, maybe Quaithe and sometimes Dany. I say none of these. If she were Melisandre, we would see red fire. If she were Cersei, the fire would be green wildfire. Representation of Quaithe is scant, but it is doubtful that a shadowbinder of Asshai would produce pale white fire. Perhaps she is the corpse queen, you may wonder. The pale white fire could fit with her. Ice is fire, but imo George would use blue fire then, not pale white. It is someone very much like the corpse queen, perhaps of the same origin, but who evolved differently in an entirely different environment. I believe the shadow woman is Shade of Qarth. The capering dwarves, biting and tearing at one another is similar to some of the imagery that Dany sees in the House of the Undying.

When they reached the door—a tall oval mouth, set in a wall fashioned in the likeness of a human face—the smallest dwarf Dany had ever seen was waiting on the threshold. He stood no higher than her knee, his faced pinched and pointed, snoutish, but he was dressed in delicate livery of purple and blue, and his tiny pink hands held a silver tray. Upon it rested a slender crystal glass filled with a thick blue liquid: shade of the evening, the wine of warlocks. “Take and drink,” urged Pyat Pree. […] In one room, a beautiful woman sprawled naked on the floor while four little men crawled over her. They had rattish pointed faces and tiny pink hands, like the servitor who had brought her the glass of shade. One was pumping between her thighs. Another savaged her breasts, worrying at the nipples with his wet red mouth, tearing and chewing. (aCoK, Daenerys IV)

Wait a minute, you may be thinking now. Who is Shade? There is no character named Shade in Qarth. Well, we never learn her name or even meet her as a full fledged character. She is almost a hidden unknown at the heart of the House of the Undying.

A long stone table filled this room. Above it floated a human heart, swollen and blue with corruption, yet still alive. It beat, a deep ponderous throb of sound, and each pulse sent out a wash of indigo light. The figures around the table were no more than blue shadows. As Dany walked to the empty chair at the foot of the table, they did not stir, nor speak, nor turn to face her. There was no sound but the slow, deep beat of the rotting heart. (aCoK, Daenerys IV)

House of the Undying, artist unknown (contact me to credit you)

Shade is the spirit/entity/magic that uses the human rotting heart to survive, not to be confused with the human being to whom once the heart belonged, nor the Undying that Dany burned. The Undying are to Shade, what the Others are to the corpse queen.

You may argue, “How could it be this theorized Shade if Drogon burned it all down: the heart, the Undying, the construction?” Because something survived – shade of the evening.

Long and low, without towers or windows, [the House of the Undying] coiled like a stone serpent through a grove of black-barked trees whose inky blue leaves made the stuff of the sorcerous drink the Qartheen called shade of the evening. (aCoK, Daenerys IV)

Shade is like the “ghost in a bottle” that can be poured into a glass. Shade is both a ghost and a shadow, as well as a sorceress. And George could not make the pale white light of the shadow indigo, since that would come across as the blue of the corpse queen. It is enough to include the light that matches with no prior known sorceress or queen, to indicate that this shadow is a sorcerous spirit, but she is no more than a shadow for she has no physical body anymore. And the dwarves are the secure connection to Qarth and the Undying.

Shade was taken from Qarth by the warlocks in a cask, and Euron captured their ship and the warlocks.

Euron drank deep from his own cup, and smiled. “Shade-of-the-evening, the wine of the warlocks. I came upon a cask of it when I captured a certain galleas out of Qarth, along with some cloves and nutmeg, forty bolts of green silk, and four warlocks who told a curious tale. […].” (aFfC, The Reaver)

And he smuggled it to Westeros upon his ship the Silence. Since then Euron has been drinking it copuously and has altered his plans several times. First he was to be king of the Iron Islands, desiring the Iron Throne with Daenerys at his side, intent on getting all the Ironborn on board to sail to fetch her. Then he realized the Ironborn had no stomach for a long voyage, so he sent Victarion to the east to fetch Dany for him with the bulk of the Iron Fleet, while Euron remained in the seas around the Reach, readying himself to capture Oldtown, with the presumably warded Hightower, above some fused black stone maze of a fortress on Battle Isle that has never been taken in recorded history, let alone since the day the Hightowers began to reside there. And thus we see a re-enactment of Mel being smuggled beneath Storm’s End and the corpse queen south of the Wall by the Night’s King, except for another sorceress spirit, Shade, after she was nearly defeated by Dany in Qarth.

So, over and over we see the smuggling by water. This must mean that since the Black Gate most likely was not possible for the corpse queen to pass, she either went round by sea with the Lord Commander as her escort under the watchful eyes of the Night’s Watch. And we might see it reoccur in some way with the ships stuck at Hardhome.

At Hardhome, with six ships. Wild seas. Blackbird lost with all hands, two Lyseni ships driven aground on Skane, Talon taking water. Very bad here. Wildlings eating their own dead. Dead things in the woods. Braavosi captains will only take women, children on their ships. Witch women call us slavers. Attempt to take Storm Crow defeated, six crew dead, many wildlings. Eight ravens left. Dead things in the water. Send help by land, seas wracked by storms. From Talon, by hand of Maester Harmune. Cotter Pyke had made his angry mark below. (aDwD, Jon XII)


Aside from sacrificing children/offspring to the Others and smuggling the corpse queen south of the Wall to produce Others, it seems less clear whether there was there a third use for the Night’s King. But there is a third theme in both versions of the legends that I have left unaddressed so far: maester Yandel paints the corpse queen as a sorceress, while Old Nan makes the Night’s King to be the sorcerer when she says that

“[…] with strange sorceries he bound his Sworn Brothers to his will.” (aSoS, Bran IV)

Is Old Nan ascribing this mind-binding (no typo) to another’s will wrongly to the Night’s King? Was it all the corpse queen’s work that simply appeared to be the Night’s King because it benefited him? Or did the Night’s King learn to use magic for himself? It all depends on what this “binding to his will” actually was.

We are bound to wonder whether Old Nan is talking of the sworn brothers becoming wights, for these are bound to do the Others’ will. And so it may allude to this. But the fact that Old Nan tends to refer to wights as cold or dead servants and her not doing so in this tale leaves the door open for another type of binding to the Night’s King will. Old Nan mentioning that Brandon the Breaker and Joramun wanted to free those same Sworn Brothers from these binds opens that door even more to an alternative.

[…] till finally the Stark of Winterfell and Joramun of the wildlings had joined to free the Watch from bondage. (aSoS, Bran IV)

From Craster we cannot learn more on this aspect of the Night’s King tale. Craster was no wizard and had no sorceress by his side, just his wives. Stannis does have a sorceress by his side, a shadowbinder of Asshai, who births shadow babies to assassinate the men opposing Stannis’s claims, who casts glamours to swords and men to gain Stannis followers, and who stares into flames in order to predict the future and guide Stannis to hoped-for victories.

There is a mind-bending aspect to Melisandre, but it is mainly focused onto bending Stannis’s will, rather than his men. She knows that when Stannis follows her will, then he as king will order his bannermen to execute it, and the majority will do so. It must be said that none of Melisandre’s mind-bending is a telepathic power of sorts. Even if her powers to create glamours and see the future in the flames are real, she bends minds through manipulation, where she relies on deceit and using knowledge of the future in a type of circular logic. Her main target is Stannis and later Jon at the Wall. By sharing these visions, she does not just make Stannis believe and trust in her power, but her judgement.

The very first vision that she shared with Stannis via Selyse was a coming attempt to her life being undertaken by one of Stannis’s closest advisers who had been at Stannis’s side for all of his life – Maester Cressen. Cressen believes shortly before his death that Stannis’s personality has altered due to Melisandre’s presence.

“Fool,” [Stannis] growled at last, “my lady wife commands. Give Cressen your helm.” No, the old maester thought, this is not you, not your way, you were always just, always hard yet never cruel, never, you did not understand mockery, no more than you understood laughter. (aCoK, Prologue)

But in hindsight, after learning that Melisandre always looks for threats on her own life first, we can deduct that not only Melisandre knew what Cressen planned that night at the feast at Dragonstone described in the prologue of aCoK, but that she informed Selyse and Stannis of it. In particular she told them that Cressen would try to poison her, even at the cost of his own life. Mel’s motivation to share this was to prove to Stannis that her powers to see the future in flames were real, to convert Stannis into a believer and rely on her as his primary adviser. We can also conclude in hindsight that Stannis had made efforts to prevent Cressen from attempting to poison Melisandre, to save Cressen.

  • Stannis had not allowed Maester Pylos to wake Cressen for the feast.
  • When Cressen shows up anyway, Patchface deliberately trips Maester Cressen who has recently recovered from breaking his hip. If Cressen had broken anything in that fall, and he very much fears so for a moment, the emergency would foil any plans to poison Melisandre.
  • Cressen gets up and Stannis informs Cressen he is relieved from any further service or duty to him, publically citing ill health and old age. Stannis explicitly informs Cressen “I will not have you kill yourself in my service.
  • Stannis never offers him a seat at the dais himself voluntarily, denying Cressen the opportunity to poison Melisandre’s cup. But Cressen presses on, asking for a seat at the king’s table. The unknowing Davos offers the seat beside him. At which point Stannis assents, almost reluctantly to then communicate with Mel, while Selyse beams with delight (of her red priestess being right).
  • Relieved that Cressen agrees to a seat far away from Melisandre, Stannis is quite forgiving to Stannis as Lord instead of King, calling him “old, his mind wanders.” And he is almost hopeful when he asks Cressen to speak his mind.
  • And though Stannis does tell Patchface to put his helm on Cressen’s head after Cressen denied the red god having any power in Dragonstone or Westeros, Stannis also stops the gleeful Selyse from going any further, telling her “he’s served me well.” At this point, Cressen comes up with the idea to poison Davos’ cup and invite Melisandre to share a toast with him from the same cup he just poisoned with a crystal of the strangler.

In sacrificing his own life to serve Stannis, Cressen managed to do the opposite of what he wanted – he empowered Melisandre to the position of the most trusted adviser to Stannis, for Stannis could not deny her ability to see the future anymore. If Melisandre was right in predicting Cressen’s poisoning attempt, then Stannis could not remain skeptical of her prediction that Renly would die. Cressen was indeed a fool.

After the defeat at the Blackwater, Stannis spends all his time alone with Melisandre.

“No one?” he wheezed. “What do you mean, he sees no one?” […]
No one but her,” said Salladhor Saan, and Davos did not have to ask who he meant. […]
Davos shook his head. “I will be fine. Tell me, Salla, I must know. No one but Melisandre?
The Lyseni gave him a long doubtful look, and continued reluctantly. “The guards keep all others away, even his queen and his little daughter. Servants bring meals that no one eats.” He leaned forward and lowered his voice. “Queer talking I have heard, of hungry fires within the mountain, and how Stannis and the red woman go down together to watch the flames. There are shafts, they say, and secret stairs down into the mountain’s heart, into hot places where only she may walk unburned. It is enough and more to give an old man such terrors that sometimes he can scarcely find the strength to eat.” (aSoS, Davos II)

And in doing that, Stannis – who had no intention of ever harming his bastard nephew Edric Storm – comes so close to giving into Melisandre’s desire to sacrifice him in order to try and make a stone dragon come to life, that we can conclude that Stannis would have done so, if Davos had not rescued the boy.

It still angers me. How could [Penrose] think I would hurt the boy? I chose Robert, did I not? When that hard day came. I chose blood over honor.” (aSoS, Davos IV)

Melisandre moved closer. “Save them, sire. Let me wake the stone dragons. Three is three. Give me the boy.
“Edric Storm,” Davos said.
Stannis rounded on him in a cold fury. “I know his name. Spare me your reproaches. I like this no more than you do, but my duty is to the realm. My duty . . .” He turned back to Melisandre. “You swear there is no other way? Swear it on your life, for I promise, you shall die by inches if you lie.” (aSoS, Davos VI)

It should also be noted that Melisandre does not just keep the ability itself to see visions in flames to herself.  She teaches Stannis to scry the flames himself.

Stannis by Darko Stojanovic
Stannis Baratheon, by Darko Stojanovic

She has shown it to me, Lord Davos. In the flames.”
“You saw it, sire?” It was not like Stannis Baratheon to lie about such a thing.
With mine own eyes. After the battle, when I was lost to despair, the Lady Melisandre bid me gaze into the hearthfire. The chimney was drawing strongly, and bits of ash were rising from the fire. I stared at them, feeling half a fool, but she bid me look deeper, and . . . the ashes were white, rising in the updraft, yet all at once it seemed as if they were falling. Snow, I thought. Then the sparks in the air seemed to circle, to become a ring of torches, and I was looking through the fire down on some high hill in a forest. The cinders had become men in black behind the torches, and there were shapes moving through the snow. For all the heat of the fire, I felt a cold so terrible I shivered, and when I did the sight was gone, the fire but a fire once again. But what I saw was real, I’d stake my kingdom on it.” (aSoS, Davos IV)

It was real enough. What Stannis saw with his own eyes in the flames was the attack by the wights on the Night’s Watch at the Fist of the First Men.

“I know the cost! Last night, gazing into that hearth, I saw things in the flames as well. I saw a king, a crown of fire on his brows, burning . . . burning, Davos. His own crown consumed his flesh and turned him into ash. Do you think I need Melisandre to tell me what that means? Or you?”  (aSoS, Davos V)

This event as far as we know has not happened yet. While Rattleshirt was glamored to be Mance and burned as king-beyond-the-wall, the burning of fake Mance does not include a description of a crown of fire around his head. So, it is hard to imagine Stannis’ vision to point to the burning of Rattleshirt. Stannis’ crown has red points in the shape of flames though and he himself seems to think that future image shows him how he will die.

As he neared, [Catelyn] saw that Stannis wore a crown of red gold with points fashioned in the shape of flames. (aCoK, Catelyn III)

George has never shared any furthers visions Stannis has had, beyond that. But he has often have POV characters such as Davos witnessing Stannis scrying the flames.

“Lord of Light, protect us,” the queen sang. The king did not respond with the others. He was staring into the flames. Davos wondered what he saw there. Another vision of the war to come? Or something closer to home? (aSoS, Davos VI)

Aside from Selyse becoming a devoted, fanatical follower and Stannis believing and relying on Mel, she also gains a following with his bannermen, knights and levies.

The king’s men were as earthy and impious as any other soldiers, but the queen’s men were fervid in their devotion to Melisandre of Asshai and her Lord of Light. (aSoS, Samwell III)

And those who are not tend to end up on a pyre, but only after Stannis converts to the R’hllorism.

Aeron Damphair
Aeron Damphair, by Coro Mina S

We see something similar in Euron’s arc as in Stannis’. After acquiring a cask of shade-of-the-evening, Euron gets hooked on it quickly, but also tries to share it with his brothers. He offers it to Victarion after the victory on the Shield Islands, who spits it out suspiciously the moment he tastes it.

The Crow’s Eye filled two cups with a strange black wine that flowed as thick as honey. “Drink with me, brother. Have a taste of this.” He offered one of the cups to Victarion.
The captain took the cup Euron had not offered, sniffed at its contents suspiciously. Seen up close, it looked more blue than black. It was thick and oily, with a smell like rotted flesh. He tried a small swallow, and spit it out at once. (aFfC, The Reaver)

And later he forces it down Aeron’s throat twice.

Euron grabbed a handful of the priest’s tangled black hair, pulled his head back, and lifted the wine cup to his lips. But what flowed into his mouth was not wine. It was thick and viscous, with a taste that seemed to change with every swallow. Now bitter, now sour, now sweet. When Aeron tried to spit it out, his brother tightened his grip and forced more down his throat. “That’s it, priest. Gulp it down. The wine of the warlocks, sweeter than your seawater, with more truth in it than all the gods of earth.” […] Euron produced a carved stone bottle and a wine cup. “You have a thirsty look about you,” he said as he poured. “You need a drink; a taste of evening’s shade.”
“No.” Aeron turned his face away. “No, I said.”
“And I said yes.” Euron pulled his head back by the hair and forced the vile liquor into his mouth again. Though Aeron clamped his mouth shut, twisting his head from side to side he fought as best he could, but in the end he had to choke or swallow. (tWoW, The Forsaken)

Twice Aeron has visions, both about Euron, never Aeron, which is interesting. He does not just want to open their eyes. He wants them to see what the future has in store for Euron, not them. He wants them to see what he sees. More strange, Euron communicates and debates with Aeron in those visions, expressing sentiments as if he hopes to convert Damphair to become a follower of his.

[Euron] showed the world his blood eye now, dark and terrible. Clad head to heel in scale as dark as onyx, he sat upon a mound of blackened skulls as dwarfs capered round his feet and a forest burned behind him. “The bleeding star bespoke the end,” he said to Aeron. “These are the last days, when the world shall be broken and remade. A new god shall be born from the graves and charnel pits.” Then Euron lifted a great horn to his lips and blew, and dragons and krakens and sphinxes came at his command and bowed before him. “Kneel, brother,” the Crow’s Eye commanded. “I am your king, I am your god. Worship me, and I will raise you up to be my priest.”

I would even go further. Based on the prattling and reactions from the other priests that Aeron shares his cell with, I think we can deduct that Aeron is not the sole man being fed shade of the evening. And if so, it makes sense then why Aeron also sees the death of the gods that match with other priests of Euron’s collection.

Now it was metal underneath the Crow’s Eye: a great, tall, twisted seat of razor sharp iron, barbs and blades and broken swords, all dripping blood. Impaled upon the longer spikes were the bodies of the gods. The Maiden was there and the Father and the Mother, the Warrior and Crone and Smith … even the Stranger. They hung side by side with all manner of queer foreign gods: the Great Shepherd and the Black Goat, three-headed Trios and the Pale Child Bakkalon, the Lord of Light and the butterfly god of Naath. And there, swollen and green, half-devoured by crabs, the Drowned God festered with the rest, seawater still dripping from his hair. Then, Euron Crow’s Eye laughed again, and the priest woke screaming in the bowels of Silence, as piss ran down his leg. (tWoW, The Forsaken)

Aeron has this vision when he is still alone in his first cell. Only after they are moved into the Silence, they up with several in one cell. So, Aeron (and the reader) does not know the other priests were given shade of the evening like him. But the fact that these priests include septons and a red priest, priests of the gods that Aeron saw impaled implies that Euron’s vision was meant for all.

It was in the second dungeon that the other holy men began to appear to share his torments. Three wore the robes of septons of the green lands, and one the red raiment of a priest of R’hllor. The last was hardly recognizable as a man. Both his hands had been burned down to the bone, and his face was a charred and blackened horror where two blind eyes moved sightlessly above the cracked cheeks dripping pus. He was dead within hours of being shackled to the wall, but the mutes left his body there to ripen for three days afterwards. Last were two warlocks of the east, with flesh as white as mushrooms, and lips the purplish-blue of a bad bruise, all so gaunt and starved that only skin and bones remained. One had lost his legs. The mutes hung him from a rafter. “Pree,” he cried as he swung back and forth. “Pree, Pree!” (tWoW, The Forsaken)

Perhaps he has other priests as well, from Lazar, Qohor, Naath, … We simply have not seen them yet. We do know that Euron likely sailed as far as Naath, for the Dusky woman has a skin similar to that of Missandei.

Interesting too is how they appear all mutilated, because before they do, Euron visits Damphair with a dagger during a storm.

And a few days later, as [the Silence’s] hull shuddered in the grip of some storm, the Crow’s Eye came below again, lantern in hand. This time his other hand held a dagger. “Still praying, priest? Your god has forsaken you.” […] “It was me who taught you how to pray, little brother. Have you forgotten? I would visit your bed chamber at night when I had too much to drink. You shared a room with Urrigon high up in the seatower. I could hear you praying from outside the door. I always wondered: Were you praying that I would choose you or that I would pass you by?” Euron pressed the knife to Aeron’s throat. […] The Crow’s Eye pressed the dagger in a little deeper, and Aeron felt blood trickling down his neck. (tWoW, The Forsaken)

Euron has treated them all the same, maimed them all (it is not as if Damphair is even remotely in healthy shape), and we can infer that all saw the same vision or at least parts of it. Together with the conversations that Aeron has with Euron in those visions, this means that Euron has a fair bit of mental control over what the priests sea after drinking shade of the evening. It suggests a type of mental control over both the visions and what others see when Euron shares visions that seems beyond Mel’s powers. No wonder, Euron comes to believe he will be a new god.

Or does Mel have such powers as well? She seems to have control over the shadow assassins, which are in truth Stannis’ shadow. He himself is unaware that his shadow essence is behind the assassination of Renly, as it happens, but he dreams the act remotely.

For a long time the king did not speak. Then, very softly, he said, “I dream of it sometimes. Of Renly’s dying. A green tent, candles, a woman screaming. And blood.” Stannis looked down at his hands. “I was still abed when he died. Your Devan will tell you. He tried to wake me. Dawn was nigh and my lords were waiting, fretting. I should have been ahorse, armored. I knew Renly would attack at break of day. Devan says I thrashed and cried out, but what does it matter? It was a dream. I was in my tent when Renly died, and when I woke my hands were clean.” (aCoK, Davos II)

In other words, Melisandre controlled the shadow assassin at least insofar she was able to direct it to its intended target, or birth it with its goal imprinted on it. Stannis witnesses the murders, for the assassin is crafted from his shadow, but this is more of a side-effect than one where he is in control.

So, could this mean that the corpse queen controls the Others and wights via the mental sharing of visions of the future, rather than some type of skinchanging? Certainly, Euron’s way of vision control seems to lean closer towards that of the Others. While we can compare the Queen’s Men to wights in a very general angle, Euron’s mutes are a step closer to it.

But not from Silence. On her decks a motley crew of mutes and mongrels spoke no word as the Iron Victory drew nigh. Men black as tar stared out at him, and others squat and hairy as the apes of Sothoros. Monsters, Victarion thought. (aFfC, The Iron Captain)

The wight was burning, hoarfrost dripping from his beard as the flesh beneath blackened. Sam heard the raven shriek, but Paul himself made no sound. When his mouth opened, only flames came out. (aSoS, Samwell III)

The wights have blue eyes, though, and they don’t have tongues, or they’ve forgotten how to use them.”  (aSoS, Bran IV)

So, what are the priests then? How do they fit in? It is heavily suggested they are a sacrifice of some sorts.

Bind them to the prows,” Euron commanded. “My brother on the Silence. Take one for yourself. Let them dice for the others, one to a ship. Let them feel the spray, the kiss of the Drowned God, wet and salty.” This time, the mutes did not drag him below. Instead, they lashed him to the prow of the Silence, beside her figurehead, a naked maiden slim and strong with outstretched arms and windblown hair … but no mouth below her nose.
When they were well out to sea, Euron returned to him. “Brother,” he said, “you look forlorn. I have a gift for you.” He beckoned, and two of his bastard sons dragged the woman forward and bound her to the prow on the other side of the figurehead. Naked as the mouthless maiden, her smooth belly just beginning to swell with the child she was carrying, her cheeks red with tears, she did not struggle as the boys tightened her bonds. Her hair hung down in front of her face, but Aeron knew her all the same.
“Falia Flowers,” he called. “Have courage, girl! All this will be over soon, and we will feast together in the Drowned God’s watery halls.” The girl raised up her head, but made no answer. She has no tongue to answer with, the Damphair knew. He licked his lips, and tasted salt. (tWoW, The Forsaken)

But are they really? If they are mere sacrifices, then why give them the precious and limited shade of the evening? Then why does Euron make the effort to have some type of theological debate with Damphair both verbally as well as via visions of broken and impaled gods?

“Kneel, brother,” the Crow’s Eye commanded. “I am your king, I am your god. Worship me, and I will raise you up to be my priest.” (tWoW, The Forsaken)

Euron may verbally scoff at the aspects of the Faith, the power of the Drowned God and R’hllor, but his efforts to convert Damphair and the other priests to worship him as well as tying his collection of priests to the prows of his ships along with his latest mistress, pregnant with his unborn child, belie those words. They are all actions that suggest he acknowledges at least there is a magical power related to the sea that needs to be appeased. It may not be the Drowned God, but something magical at least.

In his saner moments, Aeron questioned why the Crow’s Eye was collecting priests, but he did not think that he would like the answer. (tWoW, The Forsaken)

While I have no doubt that Falia Flowers and her child will die, I am not so sure that Damphair and the other priests and warlocks will end up as dead as we expect them to be. For when we consider my proposal of this as of yet unconfirmed ghostly sorcerous spirit Shade, then the reason why Euron collects priests is to make new Undying Ones. What better allies for such a Shade to set up shop again than Ironborn who claim that “what is dead may never died”?

Through the indigo murk, she could make out the wizened features of the Undying One to her right, an old old man, wrinkled and hairless. His flesh was a ripe violet-blue, his lips and nails bluer still, so dark they were almost black. Even the whites of his eyes were blue. They stared unseeing at the ancient woman on the opposite side of the table, whose gown of pale silk had rotted on her body. One withered breast was left bare in the Qartheen manner, to show a pointed blue nipple hard as leather. She is not breathing. Dany listened to the silence. None of them are breathing, and they do not move, and those eyes see nothing. Could it be that the Undying Ones were dead? (aCoK, Daenerys IV)

Unless stabbed by dragonsteel or obsidian, the Others live forever, and yet they are not alive in the manner that we would consider living. The same is true for the Undying, though they are not like wights either. Nor are they truly individuals. They are a collective, or a collection.

What is for the moment the best hint to this happening is Pyat Pree. Despite the extremely unsanitary conditions in which he is kept after they cut his legs off, that warlock still lives, almost seemingly gleeful when he cries out his name.

Last were two warlocks of the east, with flesh as white as mushrooms, and lips the purplish-blue of a bad bruise, all so gaunt and starved that only skin and bones remained. One had lost his legs. The mutes hung him from a rafter. “Pree,” he cried as he swung back and forth. “Pree, Pree!” (tWoW, The Forsaken)

He has drunk shade of the evening for such a long time already and was pretty much the leading warlock who lured unsuspecting victims into the House of the Undying, knowing full well what would happen to them.

The pale man with the blue lips replied in guttural Dothraki, “I am Pyat Pree, the great warlock.” (aCoK, Daenerys II)

The merchant prince sat up sharply. “Pyat Pree has blue lips, and it is truly said that blue lips speak only lies. Heed the wisdom of one who loves you. Warlocks are bitter creatures who eat dust and drink of shadows. They will give you naught. They have naught to give.” (aCoK, Daenerys III)

When she spilled out into the sun, the bright light made her stumble. Pyat Pree was gibbering in some unknown tongue and hopping from one foot to the other. (aCoK, Daenerys IV)

Notice how Xaro refers to the warlocks drinking the sorcerous wine as “drinking of shadows”. The warlocks and the Undying are like children drinking their mother’s milk in a way, or are like vampires drinking their mother’s blood in some type of symbiosis that sustains both. The sharing of the visions binds them together into a collective.

So, while Mel as shadowbinder of Asshai can produce shadows to do her bidding, through Aeron’s experience  of the visions while Euron attempts to break his faith and corrupt his will, binding also means having the same “visions”, or “sharing each other’s view” to create a type of hivemind under the control of their mother, their queen, rather than a king. It also means that the corpse queen has access or the ability to see visions of the future, especially those that threaten her own life, and that these are shared with Others and likely wights. Her likeliest element that provides these visions is ice, where we end up with a wordplay of ice = eyes.

Euron does not mute everyone though nor doles out shade to just everybody. He gives gifts and makes promises to convince greedy men to do what he wants of them. Eventually these gifts have a bite in that these would end up being the death of them. We witness this through several examples. The Ironborn conquer the Shields islands of the Reach as Euron desired them to do. Euron rewards several men with the castles and lordship of them. He rewards the men who supported Euron’s rivals at the kingsmoot. And by gifting them these castles and lordships he steals their prowess away from his potential rivals like Asha and Victarion, but equally ensures their death.

“Your victories are hollow. You cannot hold the Shields.”
“Why should I want to hold them?” His brother’s smiling eye glittered in the lantern light, blue and bold and full of malice. “The Shields have served my purpose. I took them with one hand, and gave them away with the other. A great king is open-handed, brother. It is up to the new lords to hold them now. The glory of winning those rocks will be mine forever. When they are lost, the defeat will belong to the four fools who so eagerly accepted my gifts.” (tWoW, The Forsaken)

This would imply that the Night’s King and corpse queen did not have everyone of the Night’s Watch or people settled at Brandon’s Gift or petty kings bordering to those lands killed and wighted, but used greed and desire for titles and lands as a cover to keep neigbouring lords, petty kings and sub-commanders from other forts at the Wall from attacking the Nightfort when the corpse queen and her number of produced Others were still vulnerable.

Conclusion (tl;tr)

We can conclude that the corpse queen is at the heart of the Night’s King story and the Mother of the Others. And though the legend tries to explain the cooperation as some carnal lustful giving of semen in order for the corpse queen to produce more Others, a quick check with Craster reveals that it is the sacrifice of offspring (and sheep and dogs) that leads to more Others, not intercourse. Hence, the Night’s King main role was not as lover and giver of semen, but as provider of sacrifice, offering it voluntarily. For this act, his name was obliterated from history.

The Night’s King secondary role is that of a smuggler who managed to get the corpse queen to the south side of a magical Wall that has wards against shadows and wights passing through. This though is a historical role. We see this role recur for Mel and for Shade of the Evening, but we are unlikely to see it again for the corpse queen. She does not seem to have any need for it now, though we cannot exclude the possibility that Others may attempt to use the wreckage of the ships at Hardhome to attack Eastwatch.

Finally, the Night’s King is also ascribed some role in binding the will of his men (and women) to that of the corpse queen. We can dismiss the picture Old Nan paints of the Night’s King himself as a sorcerer. The corpse queen was and is the sorceress, but some of the magic can be taught or shared, especially when it comes to seeing visions of the future, to form a type of hivemind. The corpse queen, Mel and Shade of Qarth use the visions as a manipulative tactic, capering to the desires of her chosen Night’s King suffering from grandiosity or the need to be special, trusting her guidance, instructions and plans, though they might discover too late they may be discarded as easily once they are of no further use to them.

Where Mel uses flames and Shade has mingled her spirit with some type of weirwood that she corrupted, the corpse queen’s likeliest aid to see the future is ice. This explains why the corpse queen felt no need to be smuggled south of the Wall, as she did after the Wall was erected. She expects the Wall to fall at some point. And we can also apply Mel’s habit of looking for a threat to her own life first, over anything else. This might actually be what prompted her to act after thousands of years, setting in motion the events since aGoT’s prologue, as JoeMagician has argued.

To figure out the use and role of a Night’s King in respect to the corpse queen, I used the facts and the hints we have about Craster, Melisandre, Stannis, Euron and the sorcerous shade by his side to figure out what is the likeliest truth of both Maester Yandel’s and Old Nan’s version of the legend.