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"The usurper Robb Stark, the usurper Balon Greyjoy, the usurper Joffrey Baratheon."
Stannis Baratheon recites the intended victims' names while performing the ritual[src]

The Leech Ritual was a blood magic, performed by King Stannis Baratheon and Melisandre in order to destroy Stannis's enemies.

History

Season 2

Stannis is furious at Melisandre due to his defeat. He has lost his faith in R'hllor. Melisandre assures Stannis that he is the Warrior of Light and will sweep aside all of the pretenders to claim his throne. Stannis is skeptical, but Melisandre has him look into a brazier; Stannis appears to have visions, restoring his faith in the Red Priestess.[1]

Season 3

Melisandre is about to sail to unknown location. Stannis fears she intends to abandon him, and states he wants Joffrey and Robb dead. He wants to make another shadow, but Melisandre refuses, since making the first has weakened him too much. She assures Stannis there is a better way, that requires king's blood. She implies that she needs to burn a human who possesses a king's blood as an offering to the Lord of Light, not Stannis but his kin.[2]

Melisandre encounters the Brotherhood. She pays them for Gendry, and takes him away despite Arya's protests.[3]

Gendry is brought to Dragonstone. Stannis visits Davos at jail, and tells him about Gendry and what Melisandre intends to do him: she claims that there's power in king's blood, and is going to sacrifice him. Davos begs Stannis to spare Gendry, because he is Stannis's kin and has never done him any harm. Stannis states that he has never asked to be a king, and he must do his duty - for the people of Westeros. Davos deduces that Stannis chose to free him that day, because he felt it was wrong to kill Gendry and knew Davos would object. He believes that Stannis is not a man who would slaughter innocents for gain or glory.

Melisandre seduces Gendry, ties him, and then places three leeches on his body. Gendry asks fearfully why, and she says, "There's power in the blood of kings. And you have so much blood"; she says that he can blame Davos, because he did not believe in the power in king's blood, and wanted a demonstration. Davos and Stannis enter the room where Gendry is held; he pleads with them, but neither of them intervenes. Melisandre gets dressed, removes the leeches off Gendry's body and hands them to Stannis. She and Stannis approach a burning brazier. Stannis throws the leeches into the flames, reciting the names of three people he wants dead as they burn, while Davos watches silently.[4]

Robb is the first to die.[5] When Stannis is informed about his death, Davos asks Melisandre, "You take credit because you dropped a leech into the fire?!" She answers, "I take no credit. I have faith and my faith has been rewarded." Davos does his best to dissuade Stannis, claiming that whether or not the leech ritual caused Robb's death, it is wrong to unite the Seven Kingdoms with blood magic; that Stannis does not need to burn the boy, because his drop of blood was enough to kill Robb; and that the boy is Stannis's kin. Melisandre points out that Robb's death did not get Stannis any closer to the Iron Throne, so a sacrifice must be made. Stannis does not listen to Davos's pleas, and agrees to sacrifice Gendry.

Davos helps Gendry escape. Stannis is angry at Davos, and Melisandre chides him: "You saved one innocent. How many tens of thousands have you doomed?" Davos insists there has to be another way, though he does not know which. Stannis sentences Davos to death. Desperately, Davos shows Stannis the distress message from the Wall. Melisandre agrees with Davos, stating that the true war lies to the north. Stannis decides to travel north and assist the Night's Watch.[6]

Season 4

Stannis is informed about Joffrey's death. He blames Davos that by setting Gendry free, he has denied Stannis of a great opportunity to win, since he is powerless to take advantage of it: he does not have enough troops or money to hire sellswords. Davos promises Stannis he will find an army for him, and he does - by contacting the Iron Bank of Braavos.[7]

Season 5

Melisandre tries to persuade Stannis to sacrifice his daughter; she refers to the leech ritual and the fact that Robb and Joffrey died, claiming their deaths prove that there is power in king's blood. Stannis initially refuses to sacrifice Shireen,[8] but eventually agrees;[9] he loses the battle and his life nonetheless.[10]

Season 6

Balon Greyjoy is killed,[11] but that happens after Stannis's death.

Aftermath

Whether or not the leech ritual had anything to do with the deaths of the three "usurpers", it has not gotten Stannis even one step closer to his goal, as Melisandre commented:

  • The people of the North remain loyal to the Starks and refuse to support Stannis, as clarified in Lyanna Mormont's letter.[12]
  • Joffrey's death has not weakened the Lannisters even slightly. Since he was just a burden, with his psychopathic behavior, his death has only benefited his house.
  • As for Balon's death: even if it had occurred before Stannis's death, it would have not made any difference, because Balon has never been involved in any aspect of the conflict between Stannis and the Lannisters.

In the books

In the A Song of Ice and Fire novels, nearly every aspect of the leech ritual is significantly different than in the show. One of the main differences is that the idea of waking dragons of stone is not mentioned in the TV show in respect of the ritual; the order and the timing of the deaths of the "usurpers" are also different than in show.

No preliminary explanations about the ritual are given to Davos (and to the readers, by extension); the readers learn about its nature and purpose in retrospect, via the following Davos's POV chapters.

Background

Following the battle of the Blackwater, Stannis's position is quite poor: a large part of his fleet, except Salladhor Saan's ships, has been destroyed, and nearly all of his troops either were killed or switched sides, leaving him with about 1,600 soldiers (1,300 at Dragonstone and 300 at Storm's End). Melisandre cannot create more shadows with him because, as she explains to Davos, Stannis was weakened too much by the creation of the two that killed Renly and Ser Cortnay Penrose.

Stannis behaves in such manner that worries his subordinates, some of whom think he might have lost his mind: he secludes himself from everyone except Melisandre. Together they go down the mountain's heart and watch the flames.

Melisandre assures Stannis he can still win: she claims that he is Azor Ahai, for he was born in a place of salt and smoke (Dragonstone is a volcanic island) and has the power to wake dragons out of stone.[13][14]

Stannis is fascinated by the idea of riding a dragon against his enemies like Aegon the Conqueror, but both he and Alester Florent find the idea of waking dragons of stone questionable; they are familiar with the stories about the tragedy at Summerhall and the unsuccessful attempts of the nine mages from Essos, Baelor the Blessed, and Aerion Targaryen. Salladhor Saan thinks the whole idea is ridiculous: "If the red woman brings them to life, the castle will come crashing down, I am thinking. What kind of dragons are full of rooms and stairs and furniture? And windows. And chimneys. And privy shafts."

For the purpose of waking stone dragons, Melisandre claims that a person with royal blood must be sacrificed - Edric Storm, one of Robert's bastards, and the only who has been openly acknowledged by Robert.

Edric Storm has been raised at Storm's End, under Renly's custody. Following Renly's death, Stannis captures Storm's End and takes Edric to Dragonstone, initially intending to use him as an evidence that Cersei's children are not Robert's offspring.

Stannis's attitude to Edric is fickle: on one hand, he resents Edric, since his presence is a constant reminder to Stannis of how Robert violated his wedding bed (similarly to Catelyn Stark's feelings toward Jon Snow); on one occasion he states "I was sick unto death of this wretched boy before he was even born. His very name is a roaring in my ears and a dark cloud upon my soul". On the other hand, Stannis does not think Edric is responsible to his parents' sins, and allows him to spend time with Shireen.

The ritual

Stannis firmly rejects Melisandre's request to sacrifice Edric. In order to prove to Stannis that there is power in a king's blood, thus prompt him to give her the youth for sacrifice, Melisandre suggests another way - the leech ritual. She warns Stannis, though, that it will be less effective than an actual sacrifice.

The blood for the ritual is not taken from Edric by force or by sexual seduction; he has fallen sick, and is given the traditional leeching treatment.

In Davos's presence, Stannis recites the three names in a different order than in the show: he says Joffrey's name first, then Balon's; for unknown reasons, he slightly hesitates before lastly saying Robb's name.

Deaths of the "usurpers"

Unlike in the show, Balon is the first of the "usurpers" to die, and Robb is the next. Upon receiving news about their deaths, Melisandre, Selyse, and Axell Florent claim the two deaths prove sufficiently that there is power in king's blood. Stannis is skeptical: "Is the hand of R'hllor spotted and palsied? This sounds more Walder Frey's handiwork than any god's". Melisandre states "R'hllor chooses such instruments as he requires. His ways are mysterious, but no man may withstand his fiery will". She repeats her previous warning that the deaths of Robb and Balon are not enough to grant Stannis the Iron Throne "This is not an end. More false kings will soon rise to take up the crowns of those who've died". She, Selyse, and Axell press Stannis to make the sacrifice. Stannis still refuses, but less firmly than before.

Davos feels he must intervene. He notices that Stannis, Melisandre, Selyse, and Axell do not say Edric's name, but refer to him as "the boy"; he understands the psychological significance, and keeps mentioning Edric's name as much as he can. Determined to save Edric, he first states that a kinslayer is cursed in the eyes of gods and men; he underscores the fact that Robb and Balon were not killed by magical means; finally, he points out that only two of the three "usurpers" have died. Stannis agrees with Davos and dismisses everyone.

Davos stays with Stannis, begging him to spare his nephew, claiming that his death will break Shireen's heart. Stannis reveals that he is not thrilled about the sacrifice, but he feels obligated to do that for his subjects: "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. She talks of prophecies... a hero reborn in the sea, living dragons hatched from dead stone... she speaks of signs and swears they point to me. I never asked for this, no more than I asked to be king. Yet dare I disregard her? We do not choose our destinies. Yet we must... we must do our duty, no? Great or small, we must do our duty".

Davos decides to take action before Joffrey dies, even if it costs his life: he gathers a group of trustworthy people, who do not believe in R'hllor, or renounced him after the defeat at the Blackwater. He assures them that Melisandre can foresee any threat to her life, but her powers are limited, therefore she may not notice their plan. Once Davos is informed about the Purple Wedding, he and his accomplices secretly ship Edric away to the Free Cities aboard one of Saan's ships. As Davos correctly guessed, Melisandre is unaware of that.

Melisandre tells Stannis she has seen Joffrey die in the flames. He is skeptical, until Davos arrives and confirms that. For the third time, Melisandre warns Stannis that even now that all three usurpers are dead - it is not enough; Joffrey's brother will be crowned, and the Lannisters will keep ruling the kingdom. She urges "Let me wake the stone dragons. Three is three. Give me the boy". At last, Stannis agrees, though halfheartedly; he warns Melisandre "You swear there is no other way? Swear it on your life, for I promise, you shall die by inches if you lie".

Davos reveals what he has done. Stannis is angry, but not furious (perhaps he is somewhat relieved that the matter was taken from his hands, and Edric is safe). Melisandre chides Davos "Do you think you've saved this boy, Onion Knight? When the long night falls, Edric Storm shall die with the rest, wherever he is hidden. Your own sons as well. Darkness and cold will cover the earth. You meddle in matters you do not understand". Davos answers quietly "There's much I don't understand. I have never pretended elsewise. I know the seas and rivers, the shapes of the coasts, where the rocks and shoals lie. I know hidden coves where a boat can land unseen. And I know that a king protects his people, or he is no king at all". He shows Stannis the letter from Castle Black. Stannis decides to follow Davos's advice and travel to the North.

Stannis never mentions again the leech ritual or the idea of waking dragons of stone, nor does he chide Davos for helping Edric escape. On several occasions he executes people by burning (among them Alester Florent, Mance Rayder, and four of Lord Peasebury's soldiers), but as a punishment for crimes (treason, oathbreaking, cannibalism); he refuses to sacrifice people just because they have royal blood (Asha Greyjoy).

Melisandre, however, might have not abandoned her plan. Soon after Jon is elected Lord Commander of the Night's Watch, he learns that Melisandre needs king's blood to wake a dragon or for another spell. Fearing that she will sacrifice either Aemon or Mance Rayder's infant son, Jon sends them with Sam and Gilly to Oldtown.[15]

Aftermath

Apparently, as Melisandre has repeatedly stated, the deaths of the "usurpers" have not gotten Stannis even one step closer to the Iron Throne: Balon and Robb have not been involved in the conflict between Stannis and the Lannisters, while Joffrey was just a burden to his house.

However, since Stannis is still alive in the books and has obtained the support of the Mormonts and other Northern houses, it can be argued that the three deaths have assisted him indirectly:

  • As a result of Balon's death, the ironborn's manpower in the north has significantly decreased, which made it easier for Stannis to liberate Deepwood Motte (and also made it easier for Ramsay to retake Moat Cailin), and by that gain credibility in the eyes of the people of the North.
  • Robb's death has left a void. The people of the North wanted to pay their oppressors back, but needed someone to rally them; Stannis has proven himself capable for that mission.
  • Joffrey's death has triggered a chain of events that resulted in Tywin's death - and from that point began the gradual decline of House Lannister, mainly due to Cersei's total incompetence as a ruler. Considering how far the show strayed from the books (in respect of the plotlines of Sansa, Dorne, and more), it is not impossible that Stannis will survive the battle in the ice, and may take advantage of the unstable state of affairs at King's Landing.

Theories about the ritual

The question left unanswered: has the leech ritual had any effect at all in respect of any or all the deaths of the "usurpers"? Apparently, the answer is negative, since none of them was killed by magical means (as Stannis and Davos pointed out) - and the murderers' motives were definitely not to help Stannis.

There is a fan theory that Melisandre has foreseen the three deaths in her visions; knowing that the "usurpers" would die anyway, she performed the ritual (which was just a show) in order to take credit for their deaths, as an "evidence" of the power of R'hllor, and by that to prompt Stannis to sacrifice Edric, which was her purpose from the beginning. It is not out of character for Melisandre to use illusions and deceptions for her purposes; she admits that both in the show[16] and in her POV book chapter. For instance, she used an illusion spell in order to save Mance Rayder.

Another theory is that the ritual has its intended effect, but (in contrast to the shadows) does not kill its victims directly or explicably; instead it provides a "twist" of fate that will ensure their death by some other means.

References and notes

  1. "Valar Morghulis"
  2. "Walk of Punishment"
  3. "The Climb"
  4. "Second Sons"
  5. "The Rains of Castamere"
  6. "Mhysa"
  7. "Breaker of Chains"
  8. "The Gift"
  9. "The Dance of Dragons"
  10. "Mother's Mercy"
  11. "Home"
  12. "The House of Black and White"
  13. It is unclear what exactly are those "stone dragons"; Melisandre does not mention them in the TV series. Since Stannis does not have in possession any fossilized dragon eggs, Melisandre might have referred to the stone carvings of dragons in Dragonstone.
  14. Apparently, Melisandre is unaware that Daenerys has hatched the three dragon eggs, and that can be considered as "waking dragons of stone"; moreover, she was born in Dragonstone, while Stannis was not - he was born in Storm's End. Therefore, Daenerys fits the description of Azor Ahai more than Stannis.
  15. Note that in Melisandre's POV book chapter ("A Dance with Dragons" chapter 31), she does not give any thought about using royal blood for any purpose, so she might have given up the idea after all.
  16. "Mockingbird"
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