At the end of A Dance with Dragons, winter has arrived with a vengeance throughout the realm, with snow driving not only in the usually frozen North but in the Riverlands and even down to the capital. Yet the end of the long summer and autumn brings not merely a physical drop in temperature, but a thematic change in many characters.
With winter will come hardened spirits, colder attitudes, and the deaths of many innocents.
That winter means the end of innocence has been well established in the series:
Summer will end soon enough, and childhood as well. (Eddard Stark, “Catelyn II”, A Game of Thrones)
“I pity them.”
“Why? Look at them. They’re young and strong, full of life and laughter … Why pity?”
“Because it will not last. Because they are the knights of summer, and winter is coming.” (Catelyn Stark to Mathis Rowan, “Catelyn II”, A Clash of Kings)
While summer and autumn lingered, the full effect of this connection could not be explored. With winter as both the background and ,presumably, from the title, major theme of The Winds of Winter, however, I propose that much of the book’s focus will be on the transformation of characters we’ve already known over the past five books into harder versions of themselves. Consequently, I believe this hardening of attitudes will drive characters to commit brutal actions against the young and innocent. In particular, I want to focus my analysis on several upcoming plotlines that I believe will demonstrate this in The Winds of Winter:
- The sacrifices of Tommen and Shireen by the Sand Snakes and Melisandre, respectively
- The political ambitions (and subsequent murders of child heirs) in the West, Vale, and King’s Landing
- The brutal consequences of war as seen by a more Tywin-like Jon Connington and the death of Jeyne Westerling (among others) at the hands of the Brotherhood Without Banners
- The power struggle for the North among Jon, Sansa, and Rickon
For all of these characters, The Winds of Winter will present them with the hardest choices they’ve yet faced, and turn them toward harsh, even brutal answers. Yet this brutality won’t be borne out in openly declared evil motivations, as GRRM himself has criticized in writing. Instead, it will come through very human and very real grievances. The time of mercy and justice has passed; the time of cold sacrifice and vengeance has arrived.
Blood for Blood: Children as Sacrifice
“The High Septon once told me that as we sin, so do we suffer. If that’s true, Lord Eddard, tell me… why is it always the innocents who suffer most, when you high lords play your game of thrones?” (“Varys, to Eddard Stark, “Eddard XV”, A Game of Thrones)
Why do children suffer most? Not for any fault of the children themselves, naturally. Instead, in the games of power politics played by the lords of Westeros, children become pawns to be manipulated and sacrificed for the lords’ causes (most especially the cause of vengeance).
The most prominent example of Westerosi children being sacrificed for the cause of vengeance – personal and political – is that of Rhaegar’s children, Rhaenys and Aegon. While Tywin’s need for personal vengeance ensured the death of Princess Elia, political concerns determined the sacrifice of the two youngest Targaryens:
“We had come late to Robert’s cause. It was necessary to demonstrate our loyalty. When I laid those bodies before the throne, no man could doubt that we had forsaken House Targaryen forever. And Robert’s relief was palpable. As stupid as he was, even he knew that Rhaegar’s children had to die if his throne was ever to be secure. Yet he saw himself as a hero, and heroes do not kill children.” (Tywin Lannister, “Tyrion VI”, A Storm of Swords)
Tywin’s sacrifice of Rhaegar’s children satisfied twin political desires, both proving House Lannister’s loyalty (henceforth unpledged) to the rebels’ cause and partly ending the possibility of legitimist pretenders to the throne raising banners in the future. For Tywin personally, as well, the deaths of Rhaenys and Aegon partly repaid the old blood debt Aerys had carried out against House Lannister. As children of Elia Martell, the young royals represented Aerys’ public snubbing of Cersei as a bride for Rhaegar, in favor of the Dornish princess. They represented what Tywin had most desired – a daughter for a queen, a grandchild as the heir – and how openly Aerys had mocked this desire; for that crime, they all – princess and children alike – had to die.
These sacrifices – of a toddler and infant child – were horrifying in and of themselves. But Rhaenys and Aegon’s deaths were brutal even by historical Westerosi standards.
“Ser Amory was almost as bestial with Rhaenys. I asked him afterward why it had required half a hundred thrusts to kill a girl of… two? Three? He said she’d kicked him and would not stop screaming. If Lorch had half the wits the gods gave a turnip, he would have calmed her with a few sweet words and used a soft silk pillow.” (Tywin Lannister, “Tyrion VI”, A Storm of Swords)
The girl had been recognizably the Princess Rhaenys, but the boy … a faceless horror of bone and brain and gore, a few hanks of fair hair. None of us looked long. (Kevan Lannister, “Epilogue”, A Dance with Dragons)
While the dashing young warrior-king Robert had no desire to murder the children (a curiously sentimental position, given Robert’s later demand to assassinate Daenerys in her Essosi exile and stamp out the possibility of more “dragonspawn”), Tywin had no such qualms. In the pursuit of vengeance, justice, and power politics, sacrifices had to be made – and if those sacrifices happened to be children, then someone would spill the blood of the innocents. Children die not for their sins, but for the sins of their fathers – not for who they are, but for what they represent.
Last of All the Little King: Tommen’s Death on the Dornish Altar
“So long as men remember the wrongs done to their forebears, no peace will ever last. So we go on century after century, with us hating the Brackens and them hating us. My father says there will never be an end to it.”
“There could be.”
“How, my lord? The old wounds never heal, my father says.”
“My father had a saying too. Never wound a foe when you can kill him. Dead men don’t claim vengeance.”
“Their sons do,” said Hoster, apologetically. (Hoster Blackwood, to Jaime Lannister, “Jaime”, A Dance with Dragons)
Tommen Baratheon (Image credit to Duhi – DeviantArt here)
In The Winds of Winter, the harshness of winter will force the story’s characters to harden or to perish. In a land where sacrificing children for their families’ sins – for what they represent – has historical precedent and memories of every slight and familial strife last for generations, two characters stand in particular danger. For one, death will come as the acme of vengeance, a bloody repayment for decade-and-a-half old sins against another house. The other’s death will be a literal sacrifice, a calculated move in the great game of eschatological warfare.
The former of these is young King Tommen. Because of his youth, the false Baratheon king has done very little on his own, instead serving largely as a source of power for his mother (and regent) Cersei. Yet despite his sweet and innocent nature, Tommen has unknowingly made murderous enemies: the Sand Snakes.
The Sand Snakes (image credit to Enife – DeviantArt here)
It was not Tommen himself but the actions of his forbear, Tywin, who baited the Dornish bastards’ desire for vengeance. With the murders of Aegon, Rhaenys, and Elia, Tywin Lannister committed a sin against House Martell, and (according to that House’s bastard scions) only blood can repay the debt. But the untimely deaths of those responsible for the atrocities committed against House Martell complicates this thirst for vengeance; Tywin Lannister, Gregor Clegane and Amory Lorch have all been killed by the time of A Dance with Dragons. Thus the blood debt owed to the Martells is paid. Certainly, such was the attitude of Prince Doran, when presented with the Mountain’s skull:
This is the justice that Dorne has hungered for. I am glad that I lived long enough to taste it. At long last the Lannisters have proved the truth of their boast and paid this old blood debt.” (Doran Martell, “The Watcher”, A Dance with Dragons)
Doran might be satisfied, but his bastard-born nieces are definitely not. In the minds of the Sand Snakes, Gregor’s death is only the beginning. Everyone connected to the crime, even those with the tangential connection of being a descendent of Tywin Lannister, must pay — sons as well as fathers, children as well as adults:
“Four lives will suffice for me. Lord Tywin’s golden twins, as payment for Elia’s children. The old lion, for Elia herself. And last of all the little king, for my father.” (Nymeria Sand, “The Captain of the Guards”, A Feast for Crows)
That Tywin Lannister has already died by the time Nymeria declares her intention is immaterial:
“It ends in blood, as it began,” said Lady Nym. “It ends when Casterly Rock is cracked open, so the sun can shine on the maggots and the worms within. It ends with the utter ruin of Tywin Lannister and all his works.”
“The man died at the hand of his own son,” Ellaria snapped back. “What more could you wish?”
“I could wish that he died at my hand… If he had, his dying would not have been so easy.” (Nymeria Sand to Ellaria Sand, “The Watcher”, A Dance with Dragons)
Lady Nym’s reaction recalls the murder of Prince Jaehaerys during the Dance. The young prince’s’ death came as the “black” faction’s reaction to the “green” Prince Aemond’s murder of Prince Lucerys Velaryon; for vengeance, the boy’s stepfather Prince Daemon determined that one of the young sons of King Aegon II had to die:
Blood barred the door and slew the queen’s guardsman, whilst Cheese appeared to snatch up Maelor. “Scream and you all die,” Blood told Her Grace. Queen Helaena kept her calm, it is said. “Who are you?” she demanded of the two. “Debt collectors,” said Cheese. “An eye for an eye, a son for a son. We only want the one, t’ square things. Won’t hurt the rest o’ you fine folks, not one lil’ hair. Which one you want t’ lose, Your Grace?”
Once she realized what he meant, Queen Helaena pleaded with the men to kill her instead. “A wife’s not a son,” said Blood. “It has to be a boy.” … “Pick,” he said, “or we kill them all.” On her knees, weeping, Helaena named her youngest, Maelor … “You hear that, little boy?” Cheese whispered to Maelor. “Your momma wants you dead.” Then he gave Blood a grin, and the hulking swordsman slew Prince Jaehaerys, striking off the boy’s head with a single blow. (“The Princess and the Queen”)
That Blood and Cheese explicitly named themselves “debt collectors” speaks to their mission as agents of vengeance for the “blacks”. Lucerys’ death had been cruel and brutal, more especially because – as an envoy – he should have expected safe passage to and from his diplomatic mission. Yet the vengeance Prince Daemon designed for his stepson’s death exceeds even the tragedy of Lucerys’ murder by Aemon. Lucerys had been 14 at the time of his death, a squire who had died in a (highly one-sided) fight on dragonback; Helaena’s sons were just two and six years old, held against their will before Jaehaerys was executed. Most importantly, the death of Prince Jaehaerys underlines the key theme of the sacrifice of children. Jaehaerys died not for who he was personally, but for what he represented. Blood and Cheese specifically rejected Helaena as a sacrifice because “it has to be a boy” – a son of one queen had been murdered, so a son of the other had to die as well.
Like Prince Daemon ordering the murder of King Aegon’s heir in payment for the death of Rhaenyra’s second son, Nymeria advocates retaliation not just against the man responsible for the murders of the innocent princess and her children, but those of his line as well. Moreover, the retaliation must at least equal the original crime, and likely exceed it in cruelty; the other side must suffer the same way the vengeance seekers suffered.
The end of an entire line for the actions of a few (or even one, in the case of the Sand Snakes) recalls the destruction of the Darklyns and Hollards. Having been held against his will and even physically assaulted (though mildly) by the Darklyns and Hollards for half a year, Aerys insisted on the executions of all members of these houses:
Young Dontos was the son of Ser Steffon Hollard, the twin brother of Ser Symon, who had died of a fever some years before and had no part in the Defiance. Aerys would have taken the boy’s head off nonetheless, but Ser Barristan asked that his life be spared. The king could not refuse the man who’d saved him, so Dontos was taken to King’s Landing as a squire. (“Brienne II”, A Feast for Crows)
As with Prince Jaehaerys, Dontos would have been an innocent sacrifice to the cause of the king’s vengeance – executed not for his sins (or even those of his father), but those of perhaps only tenuously related family members. That Barristan alone seemed to have begged for the life of the innocent boy, and that the mercy was only granted because the knight had boldly and singly saved the king’s life, suggests how determined the king’s desire for vengeance was. Dontos had to die, to represent the complete destruction of the defiant houses of Duskendale; only a tremendous act of devotion to the king could reverse his sacrifice.
Like Ser Barristan’s inclination to mercy, when Ellaria Sand protests Nymeria’s reaction, she highlights who Tommen is – a boy, an innocent, someone who (no matter his family history) has no connection to the murders of Rhaenys and Aegon:
“The boy has never wronged us.” (Ellaria Sand, “The Captain of the Guards”, A Feast for Crows)
Nymeria has no argument to Ellaria’s criticism; she must know, as well as Ellaria, that Tommen has no power to inflict harm on Dorne, even if he wanted to (something his good nature would likely never encourage anyway). In fact, Nymeria (as well as Tyene and Obara) are later (and quite hypocritically) shocked when Prince Doran reveals Cersei’s plan to have Prince Trystane murdered:
“Seven save us,” whispered Tyene. “Trystane? Why?”
“The woman must be mad,” Obara said. “He’s just a boy.”
“This is monstrous,” said Lady Nym. (“The Watcher”, A Dance with Dragons)
Their trueborn cousin might be “just a boy”, not so much older than Tommen, but he is a blood relation, and so deserving of the Sand Snakes’ empathy as a beloved blood relation. Tommen, by contrast, is the descendant of the monstrous Tywin Lannister, an unnatural creation himself who deserves only to be destroyed:
“The boy is a bastard born of treason, incest, and adultery, if Lord Stannis can be believed … Only royal blood can wash out my father’s murder.” (Nymeria Sand, “The Captain of the Guards”, A Feast for Crows)
She underlines his birth status and the (true) rumors disseminated by Stannis in order to emphasize the “rot” of the Lannisters, and to justify why the Lannisters deserve to die at the hands of the Sand Snakes. The shedding of Martell and Targaryen blood by the Lannisters necessitates equally august sacrifices.
So what will happen to young Tommen? Unfortunately for the boy king, two of these very vengeful bastard ladies are now headed to his capital, and at least one to the inner sanctum of his court.
As part of a settlement with Dorne, Tyrion (as Hand) had offered not only his niece to Prince Trystane, but a council seat to Prince Doran. Prince Oberyn had accepted on his brother’s behalf, but died dueling Gregor Clegane before he could undertake his duties. Doran instead decides to send his daughter Nymeria:
“We must needs return Myrcella to her mother, but I will not be accompanying her. That task will be yours, Nymeria. The Lannisters will not like it, no more than they liked it when I sent them Oberyn, but they dare not refuse. We need a voice in council, an ear at court. Be careful, though. King’s Landing is a pit of snakes.”
Lady Nym smiled. “Why, Uncle, I love snakes.” (Doran Martell, to Nymeria Sand, “The Watcher”, A Dance with Dragons)
Nymeria Sand (Image credit to Quickreaver – DeviantArt here)
Despite her beauty, Nymeria is as deadly a woman as her half-sisters. More unfortunately, for Tommen, Nymeria is much less open about her martial abilities than Obara:
Her sister Obara wore her whip upon her hip and carried a spear where any man could see it. Lady Nym was no less deadly, though she kept her knives well hidden. (“The Captain of the Guards”, A Feast for Crows)
Nymeria was least dangerous when nearly naked. Elsewise she was sure to have a dozen blades concealed about her person. (“The Watcher”, A Dance with Dragons)
A royal council member with an openly declared desire for the king’s death, whose great skill with blades is only compounded by her ability to hide the blades on her person – such a scenario bodes ill for the king on the Iron Throne. Yet Nymeria will not be the only subtle killer out for Tommen’s blood in King’s Landing:
“And what of me?” asked Tyene.
“Your mother was a septa. Oberyn once told me that she read to you in the cradle from the Seven-Pointed Star. I want you in King’s Landing too, but on the other hill. The Swords and the Stars have been re-formed, and this new High Septon is not the puppet that the others were. Try and get close to him.”
“Why not? White suits my coloring. I look so … pure.” (Doran Martell, to Tyene Sand, “The Watcher”, A Dance with Dragons)
Tyene Sand (image credit to KristyCarter – DeviantArt here)
With thousands joining the revitalized Faith Militant and its aggressively pious “High Sparrow”, Doran recognizes the potential power one could wield should one rise high in the High Septon’s favor. Tyene is uniquely well-suited to the task; not only was her mother a septa, but Tyene has an air of otherworldly innocence unmatched by her half-sisters. Her appearance, in fact, directly recalls those maidens chosen by the High Septon to attend Cersei in her imprisonment:
The meal was served by three novices, well-scrubbed girls of good birth between the ages of twelve and sixteen. In their soft white woolens, each seemed more innocent and unworldly than the last, yet the High Septon had insisted that no girl spend more than seven days in the queen’s service, lest Cersei corrupt her. They tended the queen’s wardrobe, drew her bath, poured her wine, changed her bedclothes of a morning. One shared the queen’s bed every night, to ascertain she had no other company; the other two slept in an adjoining chamber with the septa who looked over them. (Kevan Lannister, “Epilogue”, A Dance with Dragons)
Yet for all her innocent airs, Tyene is no less deadly than Nymeria:
“… Poison is a foul and filthy way to kill.”
Lady Tyene smiled at that. Her gown was cream and green, with long lace sleeves, so modest and so innocent that any man who looked at her might think her the most chaste of maids. Areo Hotah knew better. Her soft, pale hands were as deadly as Obara’s callused ones, if not more so. (“The Watcher”, A Dance with Dragons)
Not only has the power of the Faith grown exponentially, especially in King’s Landing, but the regent Cersei herself assisted in the increased prominence of the Faith – and the Faith’s proximity to the crown. In exchange for forgiveness of the crown’s debt to the Faith, Cersei authorized the rearming and revitalizing of the Faith, and secured Tommen’s blessing by the High Septon:
“As you wish. This debt shall be forgiven, and King Tommen will have his blessing. The Warrior’s Sons shall escort me to him, shining in the glory of their Faith …” (The High Septon, “Cersei VI”, A Feast for Crows)
So with the increased importance of the Faith in the capital, Tyene’s particular suitability for her Faith-based mission, and her own personal desire to see Tommen dead, the chances of the young king coming in contact with the false septa seem high.
Both Tyene and Nymeria are subtle killers, in perfect positions to make a move against the young king; like their father before them, the ladies would sacrifice Doran’s political scheming to take vengeance against those connected with the murders of Elia and her children. Nor will the oaths these ladies swore to Doran not to undertake any nefarious actions in the capital likely bar them from any action against the little king, if their half-sister Elia is any indication:
And Elia Sand, oldest of the four girls that Prince Oberyn had fathered on Ellaria, would cross the Sea of Dorne with Arianne. ‘As a lady, not a lance,’ her mother said firmly, but like all the Sand Snakes, Elia had her own mind. (“Arianne I”, The Winds of Winter)
Instead, Tommen’s death will be the partial fulfillment of Maggy the Frog’s prophecy to Cersei long ago:
… “Will the king and I have children?” she asked.
“Oh, aye. Six-and-ten for him, and three for you.”
The old woman was not done with her, however. “Gold shall be their crowns and gold their shrouds,” she said. (“Cersei VIII”, A Feast for Crows)
Only Death Can Pay for Life: Shireen and the Gift to R’hllor
Shireen Baratheon (image credit here)
At the opposite end of Westeros is Princess Shireen, only child of the royal pretender Stannis Baratheon. Shireen is her father’s legal heir, and certainly Stannis considers her as such:
The knight hesitated. “Your Grace, if you are dead — “
” — you will avenge my death, and seat my daughter on the Iron Throne. Or die in the attempt.” (Justin Massey, to Stannis Baratheon, “Theon I”, The Winds of Winter)
As an heiress, Shireen is less than ideal. Not only just 11 years old, and a girl, Shireen is also a victim of greyscale:
The child had her lord father’s square jut of jaw and her mother’s unfortunate ears, along with a disfigurement all her own, the legacy of the bout of greyscale that had almost claimed her in the crib. Across half one cheek and well down her neck, her flesh was stiff and dead, the skin cracked and flaking, mottled black and grey and stony to the touch. (“Prologue”, A Clash of Kings)
While greyscale is considered deadly in adults, children afflicted by the disease are thought to have developed an immunity to the disease’s deadly form. This conclusion, however, while promoted by the maesters, is not accepted by the wildlings beyond the Wall:
“The grey death is what we call it.”
“It is not always mortal in children.”
“North of the Wall it is. Hemlock is a sure cure, but a pillow or a blade will work as well. If I had given birth to that poor child, I would have given her the gift of mercy long ago.”
This was a Val that Jon had never seen before. “Princess Shireen is the queen’s only child.”
“I pity both of them. The child is not clean.”
“If Stannis wins his war, Shireen will stand as heir to the Iron Throne.”
“Then I pity your Seven Kingdoms.”
“The maesters say greyscale is not – “
“The maesters may believe what they wish. Ask a woods witch if you would know the truth. The grey death sleeps, only to wake again. The child is not clean! ” (Jon Snow, to Val, “Jon XI”, A Dance with Dragons)
Whatever her potential to die from greyscale, Shireen remains a princess in Stannis’ court-in-exile. Yet while Stannis moves against the Bolton-Frey forces to reclaim the North for the legitimist Baratheon line, Shireen remains with her mother Queen Selyse – and Stannis’ red priestess Melisandre – at Castle Black.
Melisandre (Image credit to Ludvikskp – DeviantArt here)
Yet Shireen is not simply the rightful heiress of the Seven Kingdoms. With the departure of Stannis Baratheon, Shireen becomes the only (known) individual at the Wall of royal descent – a carrier of the supposedly highly magical “kingsblood”.
It is a point worth noting. The faith of Melisandre and Stannis’ court (mostly) is that of R’hllor, and a primary facet of that faith is sacrificial immolation. Certainly, Melisandre herself believes in the power of living sacrifice to obtain the god’s favors: she burns the traitorous Alester Florent alive on Dragonstone so that Stannis’ fleet can sail quickly from Dragonstone to Eastwatch. During his march, Stannis authorizes the burning of the cannibalistic men of House Peasebury, with his men’s hope that their deaths will cause the unrelenting winter storm to abate and their march to progress. Jon Snow himself, recognizing Melisandre’s inclination toward sacrifice, especially those who possess kingsblood; he sends both Maester Aemon (son of a Targaryen king) and Mance Rayder’s baby son (“heir” to the Kingdom-Beyond-the-Wall) away from the Wall specifically to save them from her flames.
“His life will be at risk. I am aware of that, Sam, but the risk is greater here. Stannis knows who Aemon is. If the red woman requires king’s blood for her spells . . .” (Jon Snow, to Samwell Tarly, “Samwell I”, A Feast for Crows)
Not on the morrow, nor the day after … but soon, whenever Melisandre needs to wake a dragon or raise a wind or work some other spell requiring king’s blood. Mance will be ash and bone by then, so she will claim his son for the fire, and Stannis will not deny her. (Jon Snow, to Gilly, “Jon II”, A Dance with Dragons)
Horrific as it might sound to send an ancient man and an infant to a horrible death by immolation, Jon’s instinct is correct. Indeed, had Melisandre had her way, a similarly innocent child with a similar dose of kingsblood would have been given to the flames: Edric Storm, bastard son of King Robert:
Edric Storm (image credit to Yvonne Bently – DeviantArt here)
“The Lord of Light cherishes the innocent. There is no sacrifice more precious. From his king’s blood and his untainted fire, a dragon shall be born.” (Melisandre, “Davos V” A Storm of Swords)
Like Tommen, Edric’s power would have come not from who he was, but from what he represented – in his case, the power of the blood of those of royal descent:
“Only death can pay for life, my lord. A great gift requires a great sacrifice.”
“Where is the greatness in a baseborn child?”
“He has kings’ blood in his veins. You have seen what even a little of that blood could do -” (Melisandre to Davos Seaworth, “Davos V” A Storm of Swords)
Melisandre had already used Edric’s blood, sacrificing leeches to “kill” the three pretender kings. Yet the red priestess had far greater plans. For Melisandre, Stannis is the great hero of R’hllor-ism, the new incarnation of Azor Ahai; when Azor Ahai comes again, prophecy foretells, the hero shall wake dragons out of stone. To accomplish such an enormously magical task, Melisandre needed an equally powerful catalyst, and only the death of Edric could satisfy this need:
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.”
“You are he who must stand against the Other. The one whose coming was prophesied five thousand years ago. The red comet was your herald. You are the prince that was promised, and if you fail the world fails with you.” Melisandre went to him, her red lips parted, her ruby throbbing. “Give me this boy,” she whispered, “and I will give you your kingdom.” (“Davos VI” A Storm of Swords)
What Edric represented made a perfect sacrifice for Melisandre. As a child, his innocence would please R’hllor enough to grant Stannis the greatest sign of his favor – dragons. Moreover, as the son of a king, his kingsblood would provide the necessary magical power to complete Stannis’ transformation into Azor Ahai Reborn. That he was kin to Stannis, friend to his daughter, a boy who had committed no crime – these mattered little to Melisandre, and only slightly more to Stannis. Edric would die not for who he was, but for what he could do – save the realms of man against the terrors of the Great Other:
“Edric -” he started.
“ – is one boy! He may be the best boy who ever drew breath and it would not matter. My duty is to the realm.” His hand swept across the Painted Table. “How many boys dwell in Westeros? How many girls? How many men, how many women? The darkness will devour them all, she says. The night that never ends … what is the life of one bastard boy against a kingdom?” (Davos Seaworth, to Stannis Baratheon, “Davos V” A Storm of Swords)
Ultimately, however, Edric was saved by the merciful actions of Davos; like Ser Barristan before him, Davos could not watch an innocent boy go to his death to satisfy his king’s desire. Yet also like Ser Barristan, Davos’ mercy was both unique – standing against the queen, the red woman, and Ser Axell Florent – and perhaps ultimately meaningless. He saved a boy, but perhaps merely delayed the death of a girl; Edric did not go to the flames, but Shireen will.
While Stannis lives, of course, Melisandre would never dream of sacrificing his only child. Yet at the end of A Dance with Dragons, those at the Wall receive a missive with grave tidings to this very issue:
“Your false king is dead, bastard. He and all his host were smashed in seven days of battle” (“Jon XIII”, A Dance with Dragons)
We readers cannot know if this news, from Ramsay Bolton, is true or not; even the previously cited sample chapter takes place chronologically before this last chapter of Jon’s in Dance. What is more important, however, is who would believe that Stannis has been slain. Among these people (unless she has any reason to know otherwise) would be Melisandre.
Since at least the time of A Clash of Kings, Melisandre has hailed Stannis as the champion of R’hllor, the reborn hero of her faith. Yet during Dance, Melisandre is plagued by doubts as to the identity of Azor Ahai Reborn, compounded by the visions in her fires:
Yet now she could not even seem to find her king. I pray for a glimpse of Azor Ahai, and R’hllor shows me only Snow. (“Melisandre”, A Dance with Dragons)
What Melisandre sees is not the winter storm assaulting Stannis’ forces, but “Snow”, capital “S” – unidentified, but most likely Jon Snow, in whom Melisandre has taken a special interest. This would also be the same Jon Snow whom, at the end of Dance, his fellow Night’s watchmen stab, possibly fatally.
So for Melisandre, the end of Dance presents a crisis. On the one hand, her longtime champion Stannis is reported dead; it seems unlikely R’hllor would allow his special hero to be slain. Yet if Melisandre then comes to a realization that Jon, and not Stannis, is the true champion of R’hllor, she faces the problem of raising him, at least from a grievous wounding, perhaps death itself.
Recall again what Melisandre said to Davos on the problem of Edric:
“Only death can pay for life, my lord. A great gift requires a great sacrifice.”
“Only death can pay for life”. With Melisandre having already insisted on the death of a child to complete Stannis’ transformation into Azor Ahai reborn, the red priestess would likely not hesitate now to give another child to the flames. Melisandre did not come to Stannis merely to place a king on an earthly throne, but to support the champion of R’hllor in the war against the Great Other; Shireen would be meaningless to her as the new claimant to the Iron Throne. What she could do for the new champion of R’hllor – what she represents as a sacrificial victim – far exceeds who she is – an innocent girl. (Moreover, by burning Shireen to bring Jon back to life, Melisandre would unknowingly wake a dragon from stone – the death of the “stone” Shireen would revive the likely Targaryen-descended Jon).
For Tommen, then, and for Shireen, their deaths are true sacrifices to the special causes of the sacrificers. The horror of murdering young children – both sweet-natured, innocent, and wholly without any power of their own – is, for the sacrificers, negated by the needs of their causes. Hard choices have to be made in sacrifice, as Stannis himself recognized (in a line probably borrowed from Melisandre):
If I must sacrifice one child to the flames to save a million from the dark . . . Sacrifice . . . is never easy, Davos. Or it is no true sacrifice. Tell him, my lady.” (Stannis Baratheon, “Davos V”, A Storm of Swords)
Indeed, as a final indicator to Shireen’s death – and death in flames – consider what the girl said as far back as A Clash of Kings:
“I had bad dreams,” Shireen told him. “About the dragons. They were coming to eat me.” (Shireen Baratheon, “Prologue”, A Clash of Kings)
Shireen is ⅛ Targaryen, a great-great-granddaughter of Aegon V. As has been shown previously, several Targaryens have demonstrated an ability to prophesy through dreams, and for dragons in these dreams to take the place of living Targaryens. If Jon is truly a Targaryen descendant, then Shireen’s sacrifice for his life could easily be read as being “eaten” by a dragon – dying to keep a Targaryen alive.
What her death will mean for Jon Snow remains to be seen. Jon may have acted before to save an innocent child from a death by fire, but Melisandre’s argument is not an unpersuasive one. Jon himself consistently acted through A Dance with Dragons with the goal of preparing the Wall for the invasion of the Others. If Melisandre hails him, upon his resurrection, as the one man who can save humanity from these inhuman enemies, then presents him with the (already completed, by that time) sacrifice of a single child to save millions, Jon may follow Stannis down a darker path.
As the history of the realm has shown, Westeros is a land which has seen children sacrificed to causes – political, personal, or even theological – time and again. With such a brutal and bloody history, it is entirely unsurprising that this theme of child sacrifice would continue into The Winds of Winter.
For Tommen and Shireen, in particular, their deaths will represent personal, intended sacrifices to the causes of their sacrificers. Despite their sweet demeanors and inability to harm – or even to affect – really anyone, both children have been specifically designated to die – not for who they are, but for what they represent. Tommen represents the twice-over descendant (and monstrously created, for that) of that most hated villain (to Dorne), Tywin. Shireen, for her part, represents the last repository of “magic” kingsblood at the Wall, an obvious sacrificial offering to R’hllor for some great boon from the red god. Like the murdered children of Westerosi history, Tommen and Shireen will die not for their own sins, but for the deaths of others. Nor will these two young royals be the last murdered children in The Winds of Winter. Other ambitions – of a much more political nature than either the Sand Snakes’ or Melisandre’s – will spur equally brutal decisions.