Warning: The following content contains spoilers for The Winds of Winter
“I have seen your sister in my fires, fleeing from this marriage they have made for her. Coming here, to you. A girl in grey on a dying horse, I have seen it plain as day. It has not happened yet, but it will.”
With these words Melisandre of Asshai reassures Jon that his sister Arya will arrive at Castle Black, fleeing from her marriage to Ramsay Snow. Significantly, this first description of the vision makes it clear that the girl she saw was dressed in grey. We have found only one girl in story who meets all the criteria, and it is not Alys Karstark, but another young girl who has good reason to be fleeing from her marriage: Jeyne Poole.
In spite of her self confessed inaccuracies at reading the flames, Mel feels enormous pressure to convince Jon of the truth of her vision:
The girl. I must find the girl again, the grey girl on the dying horse. Jon Snow would expect that of her, and soon. It would not be enough to say the girl was fleeing. He would want more, he would want the when and where, and she did not have that for him. She had seen the girl only once. A girl as grey as ash, and even as I watched she crumbled and blew away.
She discusses her plans with Mance Rayder, disguised as Rattleshirt, who asks where the girl is to be found:
“I saw water. Deep and blue and still, with a thin coat of ice just forming on it. It seemed to go on and on forever.”
“Long Lake. What else did you see around this girl?”
“Hills. Fields. Trees. A deer, once. Stones. She is staying well away from villages. When she can she rides along the bed of little streams, to throw hunters off her trail.”
He frowned. “That will make it difficult. She was coming north, you said. Was the lake to her east or to her west?”
Melisandre closed her eyes, remembering. “West.”
“She is not coming up the kingsroad, then. Clever girl. There are fewer watchers on the other side, and more cover.”
Desperate to save his little sister, yet fully conscious of his position as the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, Jon ultimately sends Mance Rayder and a handful of Wildling spearwives on a covert mission to find her:
A grey girl on a dying horse, fleeing from her marriage. On the strength of those words he had loosed Mance Rayder and six spearwives on the north.
Not long after, on the very day the Queen Selyse arrives with Tycho Nestoris in tow, a girl arrives at the Wall:
“A girl’s been found.”
“A girl?” Jon sat, rubbing the sleep from his eyes with the back of his hands. “Val? Has Val returned?”
“Not Val, m’lord. This side of the Wall, it were.”
Arya. Jon straightened. It had to be her. “Girl,” screamed the raven. “Girl, girl.” “Ty and Donnel came on her two leagues south of Mole’s Town. They were chasing down some wildlings who scampered off down the king-sroad. Brought them back as well, but then they come on the girl. She’s highborn, m’lord, and she’s been asking for you.”
“How many with her?” He moved to his basin, splashed water on his face. Gods, but he was tired.
“None, m’lord. She come alone. Her horse was dying under her. All skin and ribs it was, lame and lathered. They cut it loose and took the girl for questioning.”
A grey girl on a dying horse. Melisandre’s fires had not lied, it would seem.
Notice that Jon leaps to the conclusion that this is Arya, the girl seen in Mel’s flames, on the strength of the dying horse. But we suggest this is a red herring. First of all, take the presence of the lake in Melisandre’s vision, which Mance identified as Long Lake. Long Lake is by no means on the route someone fleeing the Karhold would have taken to Castle Black, being well west of the Karhold and moreover at roughly the same latitude and across a major river. We simply have no reason to imagine that Alys Karstark (whom this girl turns out to be) went so far out of her way to reach the Wall.
And while Alys Karstark is indeed fleeing from a marriage, nowhere is she associated with grey. In fact, she is dressed in Night’s Watch black on the only two occasions that she is described. When Jon first sees her:
The girl was curled up near the fire, wrapped in a black woolen cloak three times her size and fast asleep.
And then on the occasion of her marriage to Sigorn:
Her maiden’s cloak was the black wool of the Night’s Watch. The Karstark sunburst sewn on its back was made of the same white fur that lined it.
The Karstark colors are black and white. Although Alys is described as having a passing resemblance to Arya, not once is the word grey associated with her. But there is another young girl, also fleeing a marriage, and riding a dying horse who is dressed in grey.
Jeyne Poole, commonly called fArya after her forced imposture of Arya Stark, is heading to the Wall in the company of Ser Justin Massey, as we learned in TWoW Theon chapter:
“You will escort the Braavosi banker back to the Wall. Choose six good men and take twelve horses.”
“To ride or eat?”
“Oh, and take the Stark girl with you. Deliver her to Lord Commander Snow on your way to Eastwatch.”
Much has been made of the condition of the horses in Stannis’ army in ADwD, we are made aware that there is no fodder for them and that the army has been reduced to eating them. Later in the Theon chapter Stannis makes it plain that his forces must now fight afoot; they simply no longer have the horses to mount their knights. It seems likely then, that the horse bearing Jeyne to the Wall will be dying.
Furthermore, the route from Stannis’ camp to Castle Black might very possibly take riders around the eastern side of Long Lake, especially if they were avoiding the Kingsroad or have been forced to flee across country.
As for Jeyne’s garb, we know that when Theon and Abel’s washerwomen stage their rescue, they find her naked:
The wolfskins fell away from her. Underneath them she was naked, her small pale breasts covered with teeth marks. He heard one of the women suck in her breath.
But the plan was to dress her in Squirrel’s clothes, and they proceed as planned:
Rowan thrust a bundle of clothes into his hands. “Get her dressed. It’s cold outside.” Squirrel had stripped down to her smallclothes, and was rooting through a carved cedar chest in search of something warmer.
Squirrel’s clothes, it turns out, are grey:
When Squirrel returned, the other four were with her: gaunt grey-haired Myrtle, Willow Witch-Eye with her long black braid, Frenya of the thick waist and enormous breasts, Holly with her knife. Clad as serving girls in layers of drab grey roughspun, they wore brown woolen cloaks lined with white rabbit fur.
So Jeyne is dressed in grey, fleeing a marriage, and heading to the Wall on a dying horse. Add the fact that she has been instructed to be Arya Stark and we have a compelling case that she is the girl Mel saw in her flames. One final possible hint in support of Jeyne as the grey girl is this thought from Mel:
A girl as grey as ash, and even as I watched she crumbled and blew away.
Taking the last four words, we could look both at the condition Jeyne is in after her escape with Theon:
When the tip of her nose turned black from frostbite, and the one of the riders from the Night’s Watch told her she might lose a piece of it, Jeyne had wept over that as well.
It seems as if her nose might indeed crumble from her face. As for blowing away, we need look no further than Jon’s thoughts on what he would do with his sister if she indeed turned up at the Wall:
The best solution he could see would mean dispatching her to Eastwatch and asking Cotter Pyke to put her on a ship to someplace across the sea, beyond the reach of all these quarrelsome kings.
If Jeyne is placed on a ship bound for Braavos, as Jon had considered, she would indeed be “blown away” across the stormy Narrow Sea.
The significance of Jeyne being the grey girl is that Jon’s conclusion that Alys Karstark was the girl from the vision led him to mistrust Melisandre’s advice:
“Daggers in the dark. I know. You will forgive my doubts, my lady. A grey girl on a dying horse, fleeing from a marriage, that was what you said.”
“A grey girl on a dying horse. Daggers in the dark. A promised prince, born in smoke and salt. It seems to me that you make nothing but mis-takes, my lady.
Mel has cautioned Jon repeatedly about the daggers in the dark, and the skulls around him, and she warned him to keep Ghost close:
“It is not the foes who curse you to your face that you must fear, but those who smile when you are looking and sharpen their knives when you turn your back. You would do well to keep your wolf close beside you. Ice, I see, and daggers in the dark. Blood frozen red and hard, and naked steel. It was very cold.”
But Jon is disillusioned after her supposed mistake with Alys Karstark, and fails to heed her advice. One might argue that this lapse leads directly to his fate at the end of ADwD. Had Jon more faith in her words, it’s possible the daggers in the dark might have been avoided. One more poignant example, we suggest, of GRRM showing us the fickle nature of fate and the double edge of prophesy.
As discussed on Radio Westeros: Episode 03 — A Red, Red Star