The Three Rangers
One of the strangest and least understood events in ASOIAF happens right up front, before you even know what is going on in the prologue of A Game of Thrones; the death of Ser Waymar Royce and fellow ranger Will. A short summary, Waymar was leading a three man ranging party tracking a group of Wildling raiders through the Haunted Forest when Waymar is ambushed by six Others. Waymar utters his famous and incredibly bad ass line “Dance with me then” and duels with one of the Others. Waymar holds his own until the Other lands a hit, the Other mocks Waymar, then Wamyar’s sword shatters. A piece flies into his eye and the remaining six Others stab him to death. Waymar is then raised as a wight and butchers his former companion Will. Their other man, Gared, escapes the attack and makes it all the way through the Wall and to a hold-fast near Winterfell before being caught and executed by Ned Stark for deserting the Night’s Watch. There’s so much going on here and so many questions, let’s go back to the beginning and start with the rangers themselves (AGOT Prologue):
Ser Waymar Royce was the youngest son of an ancient house with too many heirs. He was a handsome youth of eighteen, grey-eyed and graceful and slender as a knife. Mounted on his huge black destrier, the knight towered above Will and Gared on their smaller garrons. He wore black leather boots, black woolen pants, black moleskin gloves, and a fine supple coat of gleaming black ring mail over layers of black wool and boiled leather. Ser Waymar had been a Sworn Brother of the Night’s Watch for less than half a year, but no one could say he had not prepared for his vocation. At least insofar as his wardrobe was concerned.
Expanding on the information, Waymar was the third son of the formidable “Bronze” Yohn Royce, Lord of Runestone and House Royce. No one is really sure why Waymar chose to join the Watch, as the son of a Lord he could marry into a lesser House and get his own holdings, become a tourney knight, tour Essos and fight as a sell-sword if he liked, almost anything. Instead chose to join the Night’s Watch. And Waymar is very handsome, Sansa Stark fell in love with him on sight (AFFC Alayne I):
“He was a guest at Winterfell when his son rode north to take the black.” She had fallen wildly in love with Ser Waymar, she remembered dimly
Gared and Will are far less illustrious. Will was a poacher caught by Lord Mallister and chose the wall over losing his hand. Gared joined the Watch as a boy and been a ranger for forty years. Both are regarded by Lord Commander Mormont as two of his best men (AGOT Tyrion III):
>Mormont scarcely seemed to hear him. The old man warmed his hands before the fire. “I sent Benjen Stark to search after Yohn Royce’s son, lost on his first ranging. The Royce boy was green as summer grass, yet he insisted on the honor of his own command, saying it was his due as a knight. I did not wish to offend his lord father, so I yielded. **I sent him out with two men I deemed as good as any in the Watch.** More fool I.”
Their basic mission from the outset was to track down and deal with a group of eight Wildling raiders who were seen in the Haunted Forest. They leave Castle black and chase the raiders for nine days. Somewhere in between, they stop at Craster’s Keep for at least a night. After leaving, they chase the Wildlings again and are killed as they catch up. But how did it go so wrong? Why did Waymar end up butchered by six Others and Will killed by wights? How did Gared survive?
Now that we’re more familiar with those Rangers again, let’s address the most simple explanation, that it was an accidental meeting between the Others and the rangers. Perhaps they were traveling through the woods to meet with Craster and accidentally came upon three rangers and killed out of surprise or keeping their movements a secret. Makes sense, the Others and the rangers are historic enemies. There are major problems with this however. The first is when Royce and company catch up with the raiders, they have already been turned into Wights. Will, the scout of the group, first finds the raiders in a camp (AGOT Prologue):
“Some swords, a few bows. One man had an axe. Heavy-looking, double-bladed, a cruel piece of iron. It was on the ground beside him, right by his hand.”
>Did you make note of the position of the bodies?”
Will shrugged. “A couple are sitting up against the rock. Most of them on the ground. Fallen, like.”
“Or sleeping,” Royce suggested.
“Fallen,” Will insisted. “There’s one woman up an ironwood, half-hid in the branches. A far-eyes.” He smiled thinly. “I took care she never saw me. When I got closer, I saw that she wasn’t moving neither.” Despite himself, he shivered.
“You have a chill?” Royce asked.
“Some,” Will muttered. “The wind, m’lord.”
The young knight turned back to his grizzled man-at-arms. Frost-fallen leaves whispered past them, and Royce’s destrier moved restlessly. “What do you think might have killed these men, Gared?” Ser Waymar asked casually. He adjusted the drape of his long sable cloak.
“It was the cold,” Gared said with iron certainty. “I saw men freeze last winter, and the one before, when I was half a boy.
But Waymar notices something wrong with Gared’s assessment. It has been unseasonably warm recently, so much so that the Wall has been melting or “weeping”.
“If Gared said it was the cold …” Will began.
“Have you drawn any watches this past week, Will?”
“Yes, m’lord.” There never was a week when he did not draw a dozen bloody watches. What was the man driving at?
“And how did you find the Wall?”
“Weeping,”Will said, frowning. He saw it clear enough, now that the lordling had pointed it out. “They couldn’t have froze. Not if the Wall was weeping. It wasn’t cold enough.”
Royce nodded. “Bright lad. We’ve had a few light frosts this past week, and a quick flurry of snow now and then, but surely no cold fierce enough to kill eight grown men.
They were frozen to death in weather that was far too warm. We know this means that the Others had sought out these raiders and killed them ahead of time with their supernatural control over cold and ice. They either killed the raiders where they sat or arranged them afterwards so that Waymar’s group would find them and investigate. There’s more evidence of this in that when Will returns to show Waymar the bodies, they are all missing. (AGOT Prologue)
His heart stopped in his chest. For a moment he dared not breathe. Moonlight shone down on the clearing, the ashes of the firepit, the snow-covered lean-to, the great rock, the little half-frozen stream. Everything was just as it had been a few hours ago.
They were gone. All the bodies were gone.
Obviously, bodies don’t move on their own, at this point they definitely were turned into wights and were moved away. Then the trap is sprung. At this point, Will has climbed up a tree at Waymar’s command and is looking for the bodies or whoever moved them. Instead Will sees this. (AGOT Prologue)
A shadow emerged from the dark of the wood. It stood in front of Royce. Tall, it was, and gaunt and hard as old bones, with flesh pale as milk. Its armor seemed to change color as it moved; here it was white as new-fallen snow, there black as shadow, everywhere dappled with the deep grey-green of the trees. The patterns ran like moonlight on water with every step it took.
Will heard the breath go out of Ser Waymar Royce in a long hiss.
They emerged silently from the shadows, twins to the first. Three of them … four … five … Ser Waymar may have felt the cold that came with them, but he never saw them, never heard them. Will had to call out. It was his duty. And his death, if he did. He shivered, and hugged the tree, and kept the silence.
The Others set a trap for these rangers and executed it, it wasn’t a chance encounter. Are they just trying to kill all the Night’s Watch members they can? I don’t believe so. Will and Waymar were killed in the Haunted Forest, but the third crow Gared escapes. Gared is actually the very same man that Ned Stark beheads for desertion later (AGOT Tyrion III):
The Lord Commander took no notice of the irritating bird. “Gared was near as old as I am and longer on the Wall,” he went on, “yet it would seem he forswore himself and fled. I should never have believed it, not of him, but Lord Eddard sent me his head from Winterfell.
There are six uninjured, camouflaged, and eager to kill Others right there with at least ten wights (after raising Waymar and Will) and they neglect to chase down Gared. He makes it all the way south past the Wall and down near Winterfell in a small hold-fast. He’s incredibly scared at this point, weeks after the attack in the forest, so it is safe in assuming that he saw at least the reanimated corpses of his Night’s Watch brothers. Waymar is killed in a bizarre duel, and Will killed by Waymar’s wight presumably for seeing the encounter but Gared is left alive. He has horses, but wights can be fast moving and tireless, they’d likely catch up while Gared slept as what happened to Sam and Gilly at Whitetree Village.
Of Course Craster is Involved
From these, the only conclusion left is that the whole scenario was not a trap for three Night’s Watch rangers, instead a trap for one ranger. Waymar Royce. He is singled out by the Others while they lazily kill Will with a corpse and don’t even bother with Gared. Why would they do this for the third son of a Lord from the Vale of Arryn who they shouldn’t even know is in the Night’s Watch? You’ll forgive me for this if you’ve read my other theories, but once again, it is Craster. Waymar, Will, and Gared stop for at least one night at Craster’s keep while tracking the Wildling raiders (ACOK Jon III):
“He ought to have passed here last year,” said Thoren Smallwood. A dog came sniffing round his leg. He kicked it and sent it off yipping.
Lord Mormont said, “Ben was searching for Ser Waymar Royce, who’d vanished with Gared and young Will.”
“Aye, those three I recall. The lordling no older than one of these pup. Too proud to sleep under my roof, him in his sable cloak and black steel. My wives give him big cow eyes all the same.” He turned his squint on the nearest of the women. “Gared says they were chasing raiders. I told him, with a commander that green, best not catch ’em. Gared wasn’t half-bad, for a crow. Had less ears than me, that one. The ‘bite took ’em, same as mine.” Craster laughed. “Now I hear he got no head neither. The ‘bite do that too?”
Notice here that Craster only talks about Gared and Waymar, not Will. And Will is a veteran ranger, someone Craster probably would’ve met before, but leaves him out entirely. He recalls very well who Waymar was, especially his fine clothing and how his wives found Waymar very attractive, like Sansa did. Craster quite clearly remembers Waymar but when asked about where the rangers were heading when they left, Craster replies (ACOK Jon III):
“When Ser Waymar left you, where was he bound?”
Craster gave a shrug. “Happens I have better things to do than tend to the comings and goings of crows.”
Craster has no better things to do, his days revolve around sleeping with and hitting his daughter wives and getting drunk. And just described in fairly good detail who Waymar was and the way he looked and dressed. He was clearly paying close attention to the lordling, some to Gared, and none at all to Will. This focus is very unusual, and shows how much attention he was giving Waymar despite his obvious dislike. Given Craster’s very close relationship with the Others (arranging a deal that he gives his sons to them in exchange for protection), I conclude that meeting Craster is what started the chain of events leading to Waymar’s death. What exactly did Craster learn or notice that would mark Waymar as an important target? And remember, Waymar is important for the Others. They set an elaborate trap using wights so they could get him alone then have five observers/back ups for the duel. They think he is going to be either very important and very powerful.
The Look of a Stark
Let’s quickly go over what Craster could’ve learned. From his own words, he notices that Waymar is highborn. Not particularly valuable information, there are many highborn rangers and members of the Watch and the Others don’t set individual traps for them as far as we know. He could’ve learned Waymar was from House Royce and the Vale. There are no other men from the Royces in the Watch, but there is another ranger named Tim Stone from the Vale. Tim survives the Great Ranging and is still alive at the end of AFFC. So possibly that Waymar is a Royce in particular is important. Is there something in his behavior? Waymar is haughty and self-confident, puts people off by reminding them he is highborn. That would annoy Craster, not a reason to set off the Others on him and I doubt they would send six Others just to settle a mild annoyance from their baby factory manager. How far they go for Waymar implies that what Craster told them was juicy, important information that set them off in a big way. What’s left is Waymar’s appearance (AFFC Alayne I):
He was a handsome youth of eighteen, grey-eyed and graceful and slender as a knife.
Grey eyes, slender, graceful. This is a description that is used only a chapter later for a very famous character (AGOT Bran I):
Jon’s eyes were a grey so dark they seemed almost black, but there was little they did not see. He was of an age with Robb, but they did not look alike. Jon was slender where Robb was muscular, dark where Robb was fair, graceful and quick where his half brother was strong and fast.
Waymar resembles Jon Snow heavily. The other known members of House Royce that haven’t gone grey (Myranda Royce and her “thick chestnut curls” and Albar Royce and his “fierce black sidewhiskers”) have black or brown hair, stands to reason Waymar would as well given the dominance of dark hair in families. But Craster doesn’t know Jon Snow yet, so how is this comparison useful? That comes from Craster’s first interaction with Jon Snow (ACOK Jon II):
“Who’s this one now?” Craster said before Jon could go. “**He has the look of a Stark.**”
“My steward and squire, Jon Snow.”
“A bastard, is it?” Craster looked Jon up and down. “Man wants to bed a woman, seems like he ought to take her to wife. That’s what I do.” He shooed Jon off with a wave. “Well, run and do your service, bastard, and see that axe is good and sharp now, I’ve no use for dull steel.”
Craster at one glance recognizes Jon correctly as looking like a Stark. He doesn’t pull this trick with anyone else he meets in the POV chapters, no one mentions it afterwards, this is the one time Craster says someone looks like a particular family. He knows what Starks are supposed to look like, and it is confirmed by other characters. One of their defining features, brought up many times, is their grey eyes.
Catelyn remembering Brandon Stark (AGOT Catelyn VII):
And her betrothed looked at her with the cool grey eyes of a Stark and promised to spare the boy who loved her.
Jaime Lannister remembering Ned Stark from the rebellion (ASOS Jaime VI):
He remembered Eddard Stark, riding the length of Aerys’s throne room wrapped in silence. Only his eyes had spoken; a lord’s eyes, cold and grey and full of judgment.
Theon recalling what Arya should look like. (ADWD Reek II)
Arya had her father’s eyes, the grey eyes of the Starks. A girl her age might let her hair grow long, add inches to her height, see her chest fill out, but **she could not change the color of her eyes.
Even the cadet branch, Karstarks, have the trait as well. (ADWD Sacrifice)
Karstark was no lord in truth, Asha had been given to understand, only castellan of Karhold for as long as the true lord remained a captive of the Lannisters. Gaunt and bent and crooked, with a left shoulder half a foot higher than his right, he had a scrawny neck, squinty grey eyes, and yellow teeth.
Catelyn commenting on how much Jon looks like Ned (AGOT Catelyn II):
Jon was never out of sight, and as he grew, he looked more like Ned than any of the trueborn sons she bore him. Somehow that made it worse. “
Tyrion Lannister recognizes Jon as a Stark as well (AGOT Tyrion II):
>The boy absorbed that all in silence. He had the Stark face if not the name: long, solemn, guarded, a face that gave nothing away.
By the correct recognition from Craster, Tyrion, and Catelyn’s internal monologue, looking like a true “Stark” means you must have grey eyes, dark brown or black hair, a slender build, and a long solemn face. Waymar Royce is three for four on those. However, he could be four for four if you take his father’s face as indicative as what Waymar likely looked like (AFFC Alayne I):
Last of all came the Royces, Lord Nestor and Bronze Yohn. The Lord of Runestone stood as tall as the Hound. Though his hair was grey and his face lined, Lord Yohn still looked as though he could break most younger men like twigs in those huge gnarled hands. His seamed and solemn face brought back all of Sansa’s memories of his time at Winterfell.
The same solemn face you’d look for as looking like a Stark. I believe this is what Craster saw in Waymar and alerted the Others about. He had seen somebody that looks a lot like a Stark, highborn, and young. This fits a seemingly important profile for the Others as they spring into action setting their trap for Waymar. Unfortunately Waymar is not an actual Stark, but he appears close enough to fool Craster and the Others.
The Royce in Wolf’s Clothing
However Craster is not entirely wrong about Waymar being a Stark, the Starks and Royces intermarried recently. Beron Stark, Jon’s great-great-great grandfather Beron Stark married Lorra Royce. And their grandchild, Jocelyn Stark daughter of William Stark and Melantha Blackwood, married Benedict Royce of the Royces of the Gates of the Moon. From Catelyn, we learn of their children (ASOS Catelyn V):
“Your father’s father had no siblings, but his father had a sister who married a younger son of Lord Raymar Royce, of the junior branch. They had three daughters, all of whom wed Vale lordlings. A Waynwood and a Corbray, for certain. The youngest . . . it might have been a Templeton, but . . .”
This is the wrong branch, however their daughters all married into other noble families. It’s conceivable, since we are not provided with a complete Royce family tree or the woman/women that married Bronze Yohn, that the Stark blood found its way into the main branch of the family and Waymar through political marriages. This is speculation, but if he is part Stark it could explain Waymar’s decision to go North and join the Watch, a primordial Stark drive of sorts to seek Winter.
It’s my conclusion that Waymar Royce was killed by the Others by accident on incorrect information from their Stark recognizing scout Craster. Sort of a let down, Waymar was killed for not being the right guy. But from the trap and situation the Others crafted, we can figure out what they were expecting to find.
The Test and the Ritual
First off, they set an elaborate trap using wights to fool the rangers. From this, we can reason out that they were expecting their target to be very cautious and intelligent. Otherwise, they could’ve just found them at night and snuck up. They believed they needed to trap the Stark they were hunting, that it would’ve been pointless to sneak up on them in the night.
Second, the number of Others that show up. Six Others show up, a huge amount of them for a race that are seemingly expert swordsman. Later on in the story, the Others only send one to kill at least three Night’s Watch members before Sam kills it with an obsidian dagger. For Waymar, they send six. If you wanted someone to watch the duel, you send an extra one or two Others. If you think the guy you’re going to fight is really good and you might need back ups, you’d send an extra three or four. An extra five implies the person you’re going to duel is going to be wildly successful. You’re anticipating that this person is likely to kill several Others before the fight is over, they fear him. However, they discover this isn’t true here (AGOT Prologue):
Then Royce’s parry came a beat too late. 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. Ser Waymar’s fingers brushed his side. His moleskin glove came away soaked with red.
The Other said something in a language that Will did not know; his voice was like the cracking of ice on a winter lake, and the words were mocking.
The Other lands a hit, and you can almost tell what he is saying. “Isn’t this guy supposed to be an amazing fighter?”. Then they execute another test (AGOT Prologue):
When the blades touched, the steel shattered.
A scream echoed through the forest night, and the longsword shivered into a hundred brittle pieces, the shards scattering like a rain of needles. Royce went to his knees, shrieking, and covered his eyes. Blood welled between his fingers.
The watchers moved forward together, as if some signal had been given. Swords rose and fell, all in a deathly silence. It was cold butchery. The pale blades sliced through ringmail as if it were silk. Will closed his eyes. Far beneath him, he heard their voices and laughter sharp as icicles.
The signal, the reason the six Others decide to kill Waymar, is that his sword shatters in the cold. They are expecting Waymar to have a sword that will resist their cold attacks. When his sword doesn’t, they are convinced that Waymar isn’t who they want and kill him like an animal.
It’s worth paying close attention to how odd these behaviors are based on how the Others attack as evidenced later on in the story. In their attack on the Fist of the First Men, there are no Others sighted, they exclusively use wights. Again, when they are picking off the stragglers and Sam kills one with his obsidian dagger, thy consider one Other as an appropriate attacker for three Night’s Watch men. Similarly, their use of wights to chase Sam and Gilly from Craster’s, no Others. Their attempt to kill Jeor Mormont and Jeremy Rykker, they entrust this mission with two wights. They operate like wraiths, killing in the shadows and picking off the people that strayed too far from the herd. Behaving more like assassins than anything else. They look to attack alone, unaware targets with stealth. But here, they totally abandon their stealth tactics. The Others show themselves and duel Waymar despite not being above sneaky, puppermaster tactics. This implies that this was incredibly important for them, and the set up feels like a ritual or ceremony of some sort. They couldn’t send lackeys, it had to be themselves personally.
To summarize, they are looking for someone that fits these three descriptions.
1. Has the grey eyes, dark hair, and slender build typical of the Starks
2. Is a great, formidable swordsman
3. Has a sword that will resist their cold, likely dragonsteel/Valyrian steel.
An almost perfect description of Jon Snow after receiving Longclaw and training constantly in sword play. You can think of that being a three stage checklist. The first item is checked off is by Craster, who identifies Waymar correctly as looking like a Stark. But then Waymar fails the second one, and the Other remarks on it when Waymar’s swordplay is overpowered. Finally, they are convinced Waymar is not who they are looking for after the sword shatters. Then the ritual or the test ends instantly after the sword breaks, and they execute the Ranger brutally and retreat, laughing at the dead man. There’s no communication between them before the descend on the bleeding ranger, they all understand that Waymar is not their target and they as one run their swords through him. It’s an interesting question what would the Others have done differently had Waymar been the person they are looking for? Perhaps still kill him, or maybe kidnap him or even something else we do not understand about this blatant ritualized event or their culture.
An obvious question is doesn’t Benjen Stark meet this description as well? His disappearance is the biggest missing puzzle piece from all this. (AGOT Jon I):
Ben Stark laughed. “As I feared. Ah, well. I believe I was younger than you the first time I got truly and sincerely drunk.” He snagged a roasted onion, dripping brown with gravy, from a nearby trencher and bit into it. It crunched.
His uncle was sharp-featured and gaunt as a mountain crag, but there was always a hint of laughter in his blue-grey eyes. He dressed in black, as befitted a man of the Night’s Watch. Tonight it was rich black velvet, with high leather boots and a wide belt with a silver buckle. A heavy silver chain was looped round his neck. Benjen watched Ghost with amusement as he ate his onion.
“A very quiet wolf,” he observed.
Benjen’s eyes are the wrong color, blue-grey are not the eyes of a Stark. He potentially fails at the first requirement and that could explain why he wasn’t killed before Waymar despite many opportunities. However, it could also be indicative that the person they are seeking is new information, and they haven’t had a chance at Benjen since he hasn’t seen Craster, the Others’ Night’s Watch scout, for at least a year before Waymar’s death. (ACOK Jon III)
“I’ve not seen Benjen Stark for three years,” he was telling Mormont. “And if truth be told, I never once missed him.”
And then his disappearance could have been almost identical to Waymar’s and it happened off-screen. There’s so little information provided by George that I can’t make an informed guess either way.
The implications of this are unclear for me. Does this indicate that the Others have a form of prophecy, akin with the flame seeing the followers of R’hllor have? Have they somehow scouted the Stark family and knew that they were waiting for Jon Snow in particular? Do they know he is special from an R+L=J or N+A=J perspective? What made them decide that they needed to start finding someone who matches Jon Snow’s description in the last few years? Or have they been doing this the whole time? The exact answers are unclear, but I hope I have provided a deeper understanding on an oft overlooked event that shines a spotlight on the Others and what they are after. So much so, George decided these events are important enough to start his entire book series with.
Big thanks again to /u/misterwoodhouse and my old friend /u/Thestudlymcstud who helped me edit and develop this post.