House of the Dragon‘s second season began in the North. There, Prince Jacaerys met with the Lord of Winterfell, Cregan Stark. Their discussion revealed a monumental secret about the two families’ deep bond. But their shared past might have also finally answered a question fans of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire have long had about Benjen Stark: why did he join the Night’s Watch?

Benjen Stark in black during the day on Game of Thrones
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Benjen Stark, the youngest sibling of Ned, took the black shortly after Robert’s Rebellion ended the Targaryen dynasty. At that point, Benjen’s father Rickard, oldest brother Brandon, and only sister Lyanna were all dead. That left Ned the Lord of Winterfell and Warden of the North. Despite Ned needing all the support he could get (both as a ruler and as a person), Benjen swore his oath to the ancient order mere months after his only surviving sibling returned home. That left the entire ancient family on the verge of total annihilation.

Even with Ned’s best friend atop the Iron Throne, and their surrogate father Jon Arryn serving as Hand of the King, the war left House Stark in tatters. There just weren’t as many of them left in a region where brutal winters can claim the lives of even the most powerful Northerners. If something happened to Ned, the only Starks (by blood) left were two newborns, Robb Stark and Jon Snow.

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Why would Benjen leave his family for the Night’s Watch at that exact moment? Why didn’t he get married and have kids, replenishing the line with potential heirs and strengthening their numbers? It’s not as though fathers or older men can’t join. Even if he wanted to join previously (as youngest siblings were known to do), why wouldn’t he at least wait until Ned’s two boys got older and stronger? Or until Ned had more children? One bad chill could have left House Stark without a lord or worse. A single sickness at Winterfell could have wiped them all out. If that happened, Benjen wouldn’t have been able to do anything. He couldn’t violate his sacred oath to the Night’s Watch to claim his family’s ancient seat, just as Maester Aemon couldn’t claim the Iron Throne after the death of the Mad King Aerys II.

Benjen’s decision to become a Sworn Brother when he did has never made sense. George R.R. Martin hasn’t explained it yet, either. The only overt textual evidence he’s ever provided is that a teenage Benjen became enamored with the Night’s Watch after hearing a member try to recruit new members during the very same tourney where Lyanna fell in love with Rhaegar. But that hardly explains why he headed to the Wall just a couple months after Ned returned and House Stark was holding on by a thread.

This mystery has always been a fun one for fans to speculate about. Did Benjen’s departure have anything to do with him possibly knowing the secret of Jon Snow’s birth? Or was it made out of guilt for not fighting in the war? For knowing Lyanna wasn’t kidnapped and had voluntarily ran off with Rhaegar, the entire reason for the rebellion? Had Benjen actually been the one who helped Lyanna run off in the first place? They’re all fascinating possibilities, the kind of small character mystery that give Martin’s story so much emotional depth and intrigue. But House of the Dragon might have revealed Benjen’s reason had absolutely nothing to do with him because he didn’t have a choice at all.

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The prequel’s season two premiere opened with new Northern lore. Lord Cregan Stark was overseeing a ceremony his ancestor Torrhen Stark began a century earlier. That’s when House Stark began sending one in ten of its own kin, drawn by random lot, to the Night’s Watch at the outset of every winter. The order, made up mostly of “doomed men,” needed strong, capable, noble members and leaders to keep the Night’s Watch in line. House Stark would keep its sacred oath to protecting the Wall and the Realm by sending their own men to fill those roles.

That ceremony and its origins indicate Aegon the Conqueror told Torrhen Stark about his prophetic vision of a White Walker invasion. That has huge ramifications for all of A Song of Ice and Fire. It also provides the best, most logical explanation for why Benjen Stark joined the Night’s Watch at what seemed like the worst possible time for his family. House Stark needed to send someone and he was the only option since Ned couldn’t go. There was literally no one else to go, so the family and Benjen made a sacrifice in the name of duty, echoing Cregan’s opening words in the episode. It didn’t matter the Starks needed Benjen at Winterfell. “Winter is coming” and that’s the only thing that has ever mattered.

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If this sacrifice is why Benjen joined the Night’s Watch, why wouldn’t Martin have revealed it long before? It only makes both Benjen and House Stark look more noble. It was always the one family that truly put Westeros first. Likely because the ceremony that sent Benjen to the Wall is so much bigger than any one character. Tying House Stark and House Targaryen via Aegon’s Dream is a monumental revelation. Assuming it’s not entirely a show creation (or alteration), Martin might very well have been holding the truth of Benjen’s departure back until his final two books in A Song of Ice and Fire.*

Of course, even if this does fully explain why Benjen Stark joined the Night’s Watch, readers still don’t know what happened to the Head Ranger. His story will be different in Martin’s novels than what we saw on Game of Thrones. And in the books Benjen is still missing and presumed dead beyond the Wall.

We hope someone finds him, for lots of reasons. When they do he might confirm he had no choice but to take the black in the first place.

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Mikey Walsh is a staff writer at Nerdist and loyal bannerman to House Stark. You can follow him on  Twitter and  Bluesky at @burgermike. And also anywhere someone is ranking the Targaryen kings.