Theon returns to the castle, where he realizes that Rodrik will attack and defeat him. Luwin tells him there is a way out—he can join the Night’s Watch. Just as Theon warms to the idea, he and Luwin are called out to see that Reek has returned with his men and routed Rodrik’s forces. Rodrik and the other leaders are killed. Theon admits the victors into the castle. The man known as Reek reveals himself to be Ramsay Bolton. Ramsay knocks Theon to the ground and his men sack and burn Winterfell.
In this section, the book begins building bridges to the next novel in the series, not so much winding down characters’ stories as setting them on new journeys. For two books, Daenerys has been moving away from her goal, traveling east in the opposite direction of Westeros. Now she finally takes her first steps toward the Seven Kingdoms and her attempt to take the Iron Throne. As if to remind readers of the stakes of Daenerys’s mission, an attempt is made on Daenerys's life. Who ordered that she be assassinated cannot be determined, of course, and that ambiguity must wait to be resolved. Daenerys may have seemed far removed from the events of Westeros for the first two novels in the series, but she poses a threat to multiple factions in the Seven Kingdoms. Although Jorah expressed some skepticism about the notion that people in Westeros long for the return of Targaryen rule, Daenerys has now encountered several people who do seem to regard her as the rightful ruler. Whether these people have merely been flattering her or whether many people in Westeros would in fact welcome her return is an open question, one that the a later novel must pursue.
Arya takes two critical steps in her character development, first reaffirming her identity and then killing a man. Ever since the end of Game of Thrones, Arya has been traveling under an assumed name, first Arry then Weasel then Nan, and these false identities feel like all she has left when she learns about the conquest of Winterfell. In the godswood, however, she remembers her core identity as Arya Stark, and she resolves to embrace her nature, wolf’s blood and all. The second important step she takes is killing the guard with her own hand. The novel has been building to this moment for some time, with Arya’s constant training, her fights in self-defense, and then her murders by proxy with Jaqen. Now she finally takes a man's life herself, deliberately and with full awareness of what she does. In the closing lines of her story, Arya notices her bloody hands and dismiss them, saying to herself that the rain will wash them clean. The image suggests Arya has at last come to accept responsibility for her actions and feels no remorse for them.
After spending the whole novel learning that her romantic ideas about love and nobility do not coincide with real life, Sansa participates in a duplicitous political show that illustrates the dishonesty and political theater involved in the royal court. Sansa is happy to learn that she will not have to marry Joffrey as the Lannisters no longer see any advantage in their marriage. In order to preserve her life, Sansa must pretend to be heartbroken by Joffrey’s rejection of her and his betrothal to Margaery Tyrell. Joffrey, meanwhile, pretends to be concerned with keeping his vow to Sansa to marry her, while Cersei and the High Septon rationalize the vow away. The whole episode is a farce put on for political purposes, to uphold Joffrey’s reputation and give him an easy way out of an engagement that no longer has any political value. Sansa, who once believed so strongly in the ideals of courtly love, happily plays along with this charade, recognizing that she must do so for her own survival. Sansa has become mature enough to recognize that honesty and ideals aren't always desirable in a treacherous and dishonest environment like the royal court.
In his final chapter, Theon finally gets his comeuppance for his string of betrayals and deceptions. Theon’s opportunism and treachery have led him to an impossible situation. If Theon gives up Winterfell to Rodrik, his ambitions will come to nothing, as he will be perceived as weak by his father and the Iron Islanders and will not be trusted again. But the only way to hold the castle is by the cowardly and despicable act of killing its citizens to hold off Rodrik and his men. Theon realizes that he cannot get out of this bind, which is why the idea of running away to the Night’s Watch appeals so much to him. He thinks his problems have been solved for him when Reek arrives and destroys Rodrik, but in fact his problems have just become worse. Despite having carried out his own betrayals and deceptions, Theon is clearly not cunning enough to recognize when he is on the receiving end of such behavior. When Reek turns out to be Ramsay Bolton, Theon realizes he has made a huge mistake in trusting the man. Whether Bolton kills him or not is unclear, however.