'Game of Thrones': How the Books Inspired the Finale's Killer Kids

Maester Qyburn and his little birds owe their murderous roots to the novels on which 'Thrones' is based.
Helen Sloan/Courtesy of HBO

[Warning: This story contains spoilers for the season six finale of HBO's Game of Thrones, "The Winds of Winter."]

The intense opening minutes of Game of Thrones' sixth season finale owe much of its power to its crawling pace, haunting score and explosive climax. But there's another key ingredient, ripped straight from the pages of George R.R. Martin's source material: the children and their daggers.

Before wildfire washed over King's Landing, lighting up the Seven and plunging Westeros into a new era of darkness, operatives moved in the shadows, setting the stage for all the ensuing violence and participating in plenty of it themselves. These children, or "little birds," as they're often known, played an instrumental role in the horror of the scene, most notably in their brutal killing of Grand Maester Pycelle (Julian Glover), on orders from Maester Qyburn (Anton Lesser).

The scene takes its cues from A Dance With Dragons, the fifth and most recently published novel in Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, on which Thrones is based. But as is often the case on Thrones, especially lately, key details differ between the page and the screen, including the players — but not the children.

As background, each chapter in Martin's books focuses on a single character as a fixed perspective. Many of the books feature prologues and epilogues, and in every case, the perspective character dies by the chapter's conclusion … which is why readers knew Kevan Lannister (incinerated during the finale's wildfire explosion) was doomed from the moment the Dance With Dragons epilogue featured his interior monologue.

The chapter focuses on Kevan, serving as Hand of the King to Tommen Baratheon, doing his best to clean up messes created by his niece, Cersei. He's repairing alliances with House Tyrell, paying debts as a Lannister does, and generally putting Westeros back on track after years and years of decline. Cersei's trial is on the horizon, but in this version of events, trial by combat remains in place, along with her chosen champion, Robert Strong. (His identity as the Mountain isn't widely known, but widely assumed by those who know him.) As far as readers know, she has no designs on torching King's Landing; at the moment, the wildfire explosion is a show-only event.

Kevan and Cersei dine together, and from his perspective at least, it's a fairly pleasant affair — until it's interrupted by a young messenger, "a boy of eight or nine, so bundled up in fur he seemed a bear cub," summoning Kevan on Grand Maester Pycelle's behalf. 

With that, Kevan storms off for Pycelle's, plunging into the snowy night. When he reaches the man's quarters, he feels a chill in the air, due to the open window. There, he sees a white raven of the Citadel — the same bird featured throughout the Thrones finale, signaling one thing: "Winter." Kevan utters this word aloud, and not a moment later, "something slammed him in the chest between the ribs, hard as a giant's fist. It drove the breath from him and sent him lurching backwards." Confused and wounded, Kevan soon realizes there's a crossbow quarrel sticking out of his chest — an image straight out of his brother Tywin's death.

Kevan sees Grand Maester Pycelle seated at a nearby table, the old man's head resting against a leather-bound book. "Sleeping," Kevan thinks, until he looks closer and sees "the deep red gash in the old man's spotted skull and the blood pooled beneath his head, staining the pages of his book. All around his candle were bits of bone and brain, islands in a lake of melted wax."

Soon, the killer stands revealed ...

Varys the Spider, absent from the story ever since freeing Tyrion Lannister from his prison cell at the end of book three. He sits with a crossbow in his hands, and proceeds to offer an explanation for the dying Kevan — a complicated, book-dense explanation involving a secret Targaryen, albeit not the same one revealed on finale night. Varys' words are echoed in Maester Qyburn's speech to Pycelle during the finale, albeit with a bit more elaboration.

"Ser Kevan. Forgive me if you can. I bear you no ill will. This was not done from malice. It was for the realm. For the children," says Varys. "This pains me, my lord. You do not deserve to die alone on such a cold dark night."

Varys continues to monologue for a beat, before realizing Kevan's worsening condition and deciding to end things … but not with his own hand. Instead, he purses his lips and whistles, summoning the real killers.

Martin writes: "Ser Kevan was cold as ice, and every labored breath sent a fresh stab of pain through him. He glimpsed movement, heard the soft scuffling sound of slippered feet on stone. A child emerged from a pool of darkness, a pale boy in a ragged robe, no more than nine or ten. Another rose up behind the Grand Maester's chair. The girl who had opened the door for him was there as well. They were all around him, half a dozen of them, white-faced children with dark eyes, boys and girls together.

"And in their hands, the daggers."

Those six words are the final words published in the Song of Ice and Fire series as it stands, with Martin's sixth book, The Winds of Winter, still unpublished. But viewers caught a different version of "The Winds of Winter," and a different spin on the killer children, in the form of the season six finale. 

Watch the video below for the season finale's other highlights:

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