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15th century Joust by Kristina Gehrmann

by Brashcandy

Who would ask to wear a bastard’s favor?”

“Harry, if he has the wits the gods gave a goose… but do not give it to him. Choose some other gallant, and favor him instead. You do not want to seem too eager.

Such is the advice Littefinger gives to Sansa Stark, acting as his bastard daughter Alayne Stone, when she comes to find him in the vaults at the Gates of the Moon after the arrival of her betrothed Harry the Heir. It is not the usual guidance one would think a father would impart to his daughter, but this is not a traditional father/daughter relationship and Petyr Baelish is no ordinary mentor. While he does not specify the “gallant” Sansa should bestow her favour on, his reasoning is clear: he wants her to entice and tease Harry, but to still withhold some show of outright preference, thereby serving to keep the Young Falcon enthralled and interested. When she later dances with Harry at the pre-tourney feast, we see that Alayne has taken her father’s words to heart; she is decidedly more bold and playful with Harry, questioning him about his bastard children, their mothers, and making the very suggestive assertion that she will be all the “spice” he wants. The hapless Harry, predictably entranced, goes on to ask for Alayne’s favour, but she denies him, replying “You may not. It is promised… to another.”

Just who this “another” will be has intrigued the fandom since the release of the sample chapter five years ago. The chapter doesn’t contain any major revelations or dramatic scenes, but this ending acts as a sort of cliffhanger, setting up the reader’s expectation that Alayne’s favour will have considerable narrative significance. In choosing her knight, we know that Alayne is quite spoilt for choice, as Martin gives us a litany of potential options from her list of dance partners at the feast, and not to be forgotten, from her conversations with two unpredictable characters earlier in the day: Ser Shadrich of the Shady Glen and Ser Lyn Corbray of Heart’s Home. While Ser Lyn remains a viable contender, however volatile and risky for Alayne to choose, we can safely rule out Ser Shadrich for now, as he tells Alayne and Randa that he does not intend to compete for wings at the tourney. Of course, readers know that the Mad Mouse has been searching for Sansa Stark for quite some time, finally entering Littlefinger’s service as a hedge knight along with two others, and meeting Sansa after she departs from the Eyrie in her final chapter of AFFC. As their conversation in the training yard reveals, Ser Shadrich now knows for certain that the Lord Protector’s bastard daughter is really the missing Stark girl, and while his stated purpose was to gain the ransom being offered for her return to KL, readers are as yet still unclear about what his true motivations are and what he will seek to do with this knowledge. Sansa’s favour, operating in this simmering hotbed of escalating tensions and subterfuge, is no longer relevant as a mere affectionate courtly gesture, but has now been transformed into a potentially game changing strategy by an emerging player.

Thus, which knight would make the best strategic decision, both from Sansa’s perspective (being mindful of her character growth) and from the larger consideration of plot developments involving other characters and events? These questions have led us to seriously consider Ser Byron the Beautiful, the hedge knight we are first introduced to as one of a trio of men LF hires into his service at the end of AFFC. To begin, a small confession is in order: This theory owes its development due to my frustration in trying to figure out the real identity of Ser Byron, as I am working from the assumption that both Ser Morgarth and Ser Shadrich are operating under false pretenses as it relates to their true identities/purposes in coming to the Vale of Arryn. We already know Ser Shadrich is hiding the fact that he was searching for Sansa, but could he also be someone else entirely, as yet an unknown figure who has his own motives in this search? A popular theory in the fandom suggests that he is Howland Reed, but that is outside the scope of our inquiry for now. Concerning Ser Morgarth, one of our “crackpot” theories here at Pawn to Player alleges that he is really the Elder Brother of the Quiet Isle. It makes narrative sense, therefore, that Byron is also not who he would appear to be, and is certainly not there to give loyal service to the Lord Protector.

An important aspect of this theory is that these hedge knights appear to be working together. With the exception of Sansa meeting Shadrich alone in the yard in the TWOW sample chapter, Martin reinforces the image of the three men as a unit from their first appearance in Littlefinger’s solar to when we last see them dancing with Alayne at the feast:

Just as Petyr had promised, the young knights flocked around her, vying for her favor. After Ben came Andrew Tollett, handsome Ser Byron, red-nosed Ser Morgarth, and Ser Shadrich the Mad Mouse.

In particular, Martin seems to want us to focus on their appearances, almost as if there are clues to be discerned from these descriptions. This echoes our first introduction to them in AFFC when readers were meant to immediately recognize the wily Ser Shadrich:

She hugged him dutifully and kissed him on the cheek. “I am sorry to intrude, Father. No one told me you had company.”

“You are never an intrusion, sweetling. I was just now telling these good knights what a dutiful daughter I had.”

“Dutiful and beautiful,” said an elegant young knight whose thick blond mane cascaded down well past his shoulders.

“Aye,” said the second knight, a burly fellow with a thick salt-and-pepper beard, a red nose bulbous with broken veins, and gnarled hands as large as hams. “You left out that part, m’lord.”

“I would do the same if she were my daughter,” said the last knight, a short, wiry man with a wry smile, pointed nose, and bristly orange hair. “Particularly around louts like us.”

Alayne laughed. “Are you louts?” she said, teasing. “Why, I took the three of you for gallant knights.”

Leaving aside their physical attributes for the moment, we should also pay attention to how “coordinated” and prepared their responses to Alayne’s arrival appear to be. There is no hesitation or delay. One after the next, they each build on the other’s statement, ending with Shadrich’s suggestive comment about “louts like us.” What we get is a singular impression of the three knights, despite their varying descriptions, leading to a reasonable conclusion that they have decided to combine their efforts and resources towards a mutual goal. If the goal is simply kidnapping Sansa and returning her to captivity in KL as Shadrich led Brienne to believe, then the presence of the Elder Brother as Morgarth would certainly undermine that undertaking. Furthermore, while Shadrich had offered to split his bounty with Brienne, the requirement to split it three ways would seem less than ideal, to say nothing of the risk of involving untrustworthy mercenary types who might seek to steal Sansa away and gain the full ransom for themselves. We are not told the details of how exactly they came to be hired by LF in Gulltown, but that all three appear comfortable in each other’s company is notable and suggests some kind of prior familiarity or connection.

Ser Byron, by the very nature of how Martin describes him, is the easiest one to overlook, especially in light of Sansa’s experiences, which have taught her that golden and beautiful exteriors can often be misleading, and that it is much better to judge someone on their character and actions. That Byron’s appearance recalls the prototypical Lannister is likely a deliberate authorial choice, highlighting how Sansa is no longer blinded by or even attracted to that ideal of beauty anymore—one that caused her considerable misery and pain. But just what do we make of Byron and why is he included in this group of potential Sansa helpers appearing very much like the odd man out at this stage of her development? In trying to figure out his identity, I quickly realised it might be more beneficial to focus on the specific role he could play in the plot and that is where the idea of him being the one to receive Alayne’s favour took shape.

From the moment he meets Alayne, Byron plays the performance of the dashing knight, complimenting her looks and kissing her hand as he departs the room. She describes him as “elegant” and “young,” and later at the feast as “handsome.” There is no sense, however, that Alayne’s interest in Ser Byron goes any further than her appreciation of the fact that he has been hired to bolster LF’s guard at the Gates. So why would she choose him to wear her favour of all the other available options? The most obvious reason is that he’s the perfect choice to achieve her apparent goal of making Harry the Heir jealous as LF advises her to do during their conversation in the vaults. Left to her own devices, Sansa may have given her favour to someone like Ser Wallace, Anya Waynwood’s son, whom she clearly empathises with and seeks to save from embarrassment when he dances with her at the feast. Or, another choice could have been Ser Lyn Corbray, whom she appreciates as a vicious fighter and is certainly set to make his mark on the tourney. That Ser Lyn Corbray might no longer be loyal to her father is something that piques Alayne’s curiosity, a potential bit of knowledge that she could exploit in the future. However, both Ser Wallace and Ser Lyn are not likely to make Harry jealous, as the former is someone he’s grown up with all his life, who is awkward and shy, whereas the latter is well-known to be uninterested in the charms of women, and whose selection might only serve to set off LF’s alarm bells. Byron, with his noted good looks, elegant bearing, and courtly manners is the ideal knight to make Harry feel annoyingly insecure. After her repartee with Harry at the feast, Sansa knows even better than before that he is a shallow sort, one who values looks above all else by the way he talks about his lovers, and altogether someone that is fairly easy to manipulate. Her first impression of Harry is revealing:

Ser Harrold Hardyng looked every inch a lord-in-waiting; clean-limbed and handsome, straight as a lance, hard with muscle. Men old enough to have known Jon Arryn in his youth said Ser Harrold had his look, she knew. He had a mop of sandy blond hair, pale blue eyes, an aquiline nose. Joffrey was comely too, though, she reminded herself. A comely monster, that’s what he was. Little Lord Tyrion was kinder, twisted though he was.

We’ve seen no evidence yet that Harry is a “comely monster” in line with the likes of Joffrey, but the comparison is significant nonetheless. It underscores the theme of appearance vs. reality that runs through Sansa’s arc, and emphasises the irony of Byron being the one to receive her favour at this juncture. Unlike the Sansa of old, who swooned at the Knight of Flowers during the Hand’s tourney, this Sansa could be set to choose a gallant knight for an altogether different purpose, using her favour not as a decorative declaration of affection but as a deliberate decoy. This aligns perfectly with the covert role that Ser Byron could already be engaged in, and renders not just Harry, but also Petyr Baelish, as the duped figures. The choice of Ser Byron would tie together the relevance of these mysterious hedge knights, and present an opportunity for Sansa to learn their true purpose. So far, the three appear to be keeping a low profile, but Ser Shadrich’s remarks to Sansa in the yard suggest that he is planning to make a move soon. Choosing Ser Byron, despite Sansa having no knowledge of what they are planning as yet, could be seen as a symbolic blessing of their clandestine mission. It also expands the scope of agency she has exercised throughout the planning and execution of the winged knight tourney.

Byron’s selection also presents an opportunity for Martin to explore the very compelling parallels to the Hand’s tourney and the last time Baelish bet against a knight who had received Sansa’s “favour.” LF’s confidence in his scheming is reminiscent of his certainty at the Hand’s tourney about the reason the Hound would lose to Jaime, told through Ned’s POV:

A hundred golden dragons on the Kingslayer,” Littlefinger announced loudly as Jaime Lannister entered the lists, riding an elegant blood bay destrier. The horse wore a blanket of gilded ringmail, and Jaime glittered from head to heel. Even his lance was fashioned from the golden wood of the Summer Isles.

“Done,” Lord Renly shouted back. “The Hound has a hungry look about him this morning.”

Even hungry dogs know better than to bite the hand that feeds them,” Littlefinger called dryly.

Has Littlefinger grown wiser since then? The barely contained rage of a Ser Lyn Corbray would argue that he has not, and that he has forgotten that hungry dogs can indeed bite or even savage their masters. His conversation with Alayne after the trio depart in AFFC provides additional evidence that he has kept the same faulty mindset and could have unwittingly ensured his own downfall:

Hedge knights?” said Alayne, when the door had closed.

Hungry knights. I thought it best that we have a few more swords about us. The times grow ever more interesting, my sweet, and when the times are interesting you can never have too many swords. The Merling King’s returned to Gulltown, and old Oswell had some tales to tell.”

During the Hand’s Tourney, we saw Sansa through her father’s POV silently supporting the Hound during his match with Jaime. She watches their joust “moist-eyed and eager” according to Ned, and later declares “I knew the Hound would win.” Prior to this event, Sandor is tasked with escorting Sansa back to her chambers and on the way they have the very profound conversation that marks a new phase in their relationship. There is every reason to believe that Sansa’s support of him during that match is informed by her learning the truth of how he was injured by Gregor and the resulting affinity that arises between them. Sansa even predicts that he will be the overall champion when he saves Loras Tyrell from Gregor’s wrath. To reiterate, Littlefinger in effect loses his bet to Sansa at the Hand’s Tourney, as he thinks the Hound will be too wary of beating his Lannister lords. This provides an illuminating parallel to what we might see play out during the Winged Knights tourney, where we have Harry the Heir as the knight Littlefinger has placed his bets on, confident that he has succeeded in gaining Alayne’s complicity in the plot, and likely having a few more tricks in place to assure Harry wins a place in the winged knights. Harry, therefore, assumes the role of Jaime Lannister in this comparison. How did his joust with Sandor Clegane end for Jaime? Well, here is the passage:

The Hound just managed to stay in his saddle. He jerked his mount around hard and rode back to the lists for the second pass. Jaime Lannister tossed down his broken lance and snatched up a fresh one, jesting with his squire. The Hound spurred forward at a hard gallop. Lannister rode to meet him. This time, when Jaime shifted his seat, Sandor Clegane shifted with him. Both lances exploded, and by the time the splinters had settled, a riderless blood bay was trotting off in search of grass while Ser Jaime Lannister rolled in the dirt, golden and dented…

Jaime Lannister was back on his feet, but his ornate lion helmet had been twisted around and dented in his fall, and now he could not get it off. The commons were hooting and pointing, the lords and ladies were trying to stifle their chuckles, and failing, and over it all Ned could hear King Robert laughing, louder than anyone. Finally, they had to lead the Lion of Lannister off to a blacksmith, blind and stumbling.

Now consider how this fits with what Sansa wishes for Harry after he is rude to her during their initial conversation when he arrives to the Gates:

A lady’s armor is her courtesy. Alayne could feel the blood rushing to her face. No tears, she prayed. Please, please, I must not cry.“As you wish, ser. And now if you will excuse me, Littlefinger’s bastard must find her lord father and let him know that you have come, so we can begin the tourney on the morrow.” And may your horse stumble, Harry the Heir, so you fall on your stupid head in your first tilt. She showed the Waynwoods a stone face as they blurted out awkward apologies for their companion. When they were done she turned and fled.

Sansa essentially wishes for the same thing to happen to Harry that we see taking place with Jaime when he falls and can’t get the helmet off his head. Will we be treated to a similar scene where Harry does indeed end up dented and bruised in the dirt, humiliated at the tourney by his betrothed’s champion? That he has now been associated with two Lannisters certainly does not inspire confidence that we’re going to see a marriage taking place between him and Sansa as Baelish is banking on.

Ultimately, what Littlefinger appears fundamentally unable to grasp is that people are motivated by other things besides money. Even someone as callous and cold-hearted as Ser Lyn wants a lordship and not simply boys to sate his desire. What do honourable men and women want? Those who remember the bonds of loyalty, family honour, and possess values that cannot be bought or traded? Men like Bronze Yohn and those who are trudging through the snow to rescue “Ned’s girl” at Winterfell? Unlike LF, it is Sansa whom we’ve seen employing her empathetic skills to determine people’s true desires and inspire them towards better ends.

As an intriguing aside, it would be remiss not to mention Pawn to Player’s contributor Ragnorak’s theory that compares LF’s hiring of three hedge knights to the three Kettleblacks who were secured in KL to spy on Cersei and Tyrion and report back to him in secret. In the above quote about “hungry knights,” we learn that Oswell has “some tales to tell,” since the Merling King has returned to Gulltown, likely of the unfolding conflict between Cersei and the Faith in KL and how his sons have been implicated. Ragnorak notes in a discussion of our Morgarth theory:

So Littlefinger is mirroring Cersei with her hiring the three Kettleblacks and her plot to hide Tommen. I tie this into his betrayal of Ned where another Lord Protector found himself without an army amidst political intrigue. There may well be a theme here that the “weaknesses” Littlefinger exploits are more inherent in the needs of a Lord with assets to defend than something born of foolishness. It is a different game when you have something to lose, holdings to protect, and you are on everyone else’s radar. Coming back to our current crackpot, if the Cersei parallels are intentional then viewing these three knights as pseudo-Kettleblack figures may be helpful especially since we’re given enough to know that at least one has ulterior motives.

With great power comes great responsibility and the most remarkable aspect of the sample chapter might just be how absent LF is from start to finish. Despite him clearly still being in charge as the Lord Protector, it is Alayne we see with the considerable freedom of movement, allowing her to notice troubling developments like Ser Lyn’s slipping allegiance to her father, and to have a very distressing first introduction to the boy she is supposed to eagerly marry. Arguably, it is Lothor Brune’s brusque words of support – “He’s just some upjumped squire” – that give her more comfort than LF’s menacing flattery below in the vaults. Baelish’s biggest weakness, glimpsed all the way back at the Hand’s Tourney is his obsession with Catelyn Stark that he has transferred to her daughter. No one is positioned to exploit this weakness better than Sansa, and choosing a knight to wear her favour could be the crucial first step in gaining control of her own network of allies who have gathered at the Gates.

Littlefinger has no reason to be suspicious of the handsome hedge knight Ser Byron—indeed, by all appearances, Sansa is following his advice to the letter, choosing “some other gallant” to show favour to instead of giving her betrothed the expected honour. Further, as we’ve established, he thinks that “hungry dogs know better than to bite the hand that feeds them,” and in his estimation, Byron is his hungry knight, whose basic needs can be satisfied with coin, lodging and food, as he serves to protect LF’s dominance in the Vale from any outside threats. Yet, these external threats have made their way inside despite the region’s vaunted isolation and security, and Byron could turn out to be a key figure in this opposition along with Ser Morgarth and the Mad Mouse.

Littlefinger has ignored Sansa’s reluctance to marry again; her reluctance to accept his “fatherly” kisses and touches; her complete disinterest in the type of suitor Harry the Heir represents. For all his astute game playing, he can be wilfully blind when it comes to matters of the heart, leading to a self-destructiveness that was evident in his near fatal challenge to Brandon Stark for Cat’s hand. His machinations at the tourney would represent the third time he has lost relating to the object of his affection choosing someone else to wear their favour. It’d be a thematically fitting development as well if, just like it was one of the three Kettleblacks he hired—Osney—who led to Cersei’s arrest by the Faith, so Littlefinger’s own downfall were to be brought about using one of the three hungry knights he also hired.

In conclusion, despite owing its origins to the elusive question of Byron’s true identity, this theory does not propose an answer, but rather attests to the role he can play in Sansa’s arc as an ally of hers together with Ser Morgarth and Ser Shadrich. Ultimately, whether or not Morgarth is really the Elder Brother or Shadrich is Howland Reed, there is enough evidence in the text that suggests these men will contribute to the undoing of Littlefinger’s carefully laid plans. We’ve seen Shadrich emerge from the background to engage Alayne in conversation, and all three make it a point of dancing with her at the feast. The little we know about Byron establishes him as the natural choice to be selected for both his appearance and likely skill as a young knight in his prime. We don’t tend to think of ladies’ favours as potential Chekhov’s guns, but Martin has provided copious evidence from tourneys past of these events being tinderboxes of intrigue and unexpected developments. Byron the Beautiful could prove to be just the right kind of match.

tian-dm- (7)

Handsome knights that evoke Ser Byron’s description. Art by Tian DM