Goodbye Horses: A Dead King’s Masterstroke

“A strong castle weakly held is weak.”
*   *   *

There are some subtle references to significant military strategy in A Dance with Dragons. Coupled with some other sly hints and deductions, these amount to yet another critical advantage for Stannis.

Specifically I want to reveal how I think Stannis planned on reducing the manpower at Winterfell such that he could in fact take it from the Boltons.

This is a long post and is broken up over the following sections.

Note: Those of you who are pretty familiar with most of the ‘current’ Stannis theories may want to proceed directly to 8. A Pretext for Suicide for the ‘new’ elements, and backtrack if needed.

  1. That Vainglorious Book. Lessons from Daeron’s Conquest of Dorne.
    What was Stannis saying when he commented about Oakenfist and the conquest of Dorne? Did it imply anything about Stannis’s strategic principles?
  2. Principles of the Northern Campaign.
    Can Stannis’s ideas about Oakenfist be distilled into some general ideas on how to win a war? How to take the north?
  3. The Malingering Merman.
    Why did Stannis seem to care so much about acquiring Manderly’s loyalty? What might it have meant to his strategy?
  4. Stealing the Winter Rose.
    Without Manderly, how did Stannis evolve his plans? What was the importance of assigning Rattleshirt to Jon? How did Stannis expect to win without the strategic benefit of multiple fronts?
  5. Goat Tracks: The Deepwood Opening.
    How did Jon’s counsel affect Stannis’s strategy? What were his next steps? What were the shortcomings of this strategy?
  6. The March of Madness: An Incomplete Strategy.
    Why it is unreasonable to think that Stannis wasn’t up to something during his march towards Winterfell.
  7. The Night Lamp: The Pirate King Strategy.
    What current theorycraft tells us about how Stannis will triumph in battle against the Freys and possibly the Manderlys at the crofter’s village.
  8. A Pretext for Suicide.
    Why does Stannis seem to have a death wish after taking Deepwood Motte?
  9. Unknown Allies.
    Who are the allies that the readers and Roose Bolton have not realized are probably aiding Stannis’s cause?
  10. Goodbye Horses: Drawing Allies from Winterfell.
    How Stannis plans to reduce the number of forces at Winterfell and be ready to take it by surprise.

These ideas are entirely speculative. Although I think the ideas here are completely logical and well-suited to the information we have, I am not GRRM. The release of The Winds of Winter could prove these speculations entirely wrong.

NOTE: This essay includes spoilers from The Winds of Winter.

That Vainglorious Book: Lesson’s from Daeron’s Conquest of Dorne


  1. Stannis’s Interpretation
  2. Detailed Observations — Real-world Insights
  3. Key Lessons
  4. Synthesis
  5. Further Insights — Robert’s Rebellion and Storm’s End
  6. Differing Opinions — Jon and Stannis

“Goat tracks?” The king’s eyes narrowed. “I speak of moving swiftly, and you waste my time with goat tracks?”

“When the Young Dragon conquered Dorne, he used a goat track to bypass the Dornish watchtowers on the Boneway.”

“I know that tale as well, but Daeron made too much of it in that vainglorious book of his. Ships won that war, not goat tracks. Oakenfist broke the Planky Town and swept halfway up the Greenblood whilst the main Dornish strength was engaged in the Prince’s Pass.” Stannis drummed his fingers on the map.

Stannis disparages Daeron‘s feats and declares that the majority of the credit for the campaign’s success belongs to Alyn “Oakenfist” Velaryon.

Stannis Interpretation

Stannis shows that he has a highly critical approach to military history. He is not content accepting the “heroic” tale put forth in Conquest of Dorne, but looks for more practical explanations on how that campaign was won, and what lessons can be drawn from them.

This image may help understand how Daeron’s conquest played out, and provide context for Stannis’s opinions:

Detailed Observations — Real-world Comparisons

What he finds is an immensely useful strategy at the operational or campaign level. In short, it consists of two parts:

  • First and foremost, a general must create a tactically significant threat to an opponent. They must by nature or by action establish a compelling reason for the opponent to commit resources to him. By nature, versed enemies will not engage in pitched battle if they can just let an enemy army fail on account of the costs to sustain it: the general must either pose a credible threat to an opponent’s holdings or engineer a reason for the enemy to act. Subsequently, the general must establish a well-fortified battlefront, such that the enemy forces are significantly engaged in regular-but-stifled military actions.
  • Second, the general surreptitiously maneuvers another force to arrive well behind the battlefront, positioned to strike at unprotected or weakly garrisoned defenses. This second front has several advantages that exacerbate an enemy’s apoplexy and can engender a quicker campaign resolution.

This kind of strategy can go by one of several names. The foremost equivalent is unofficially called an operational flanking maneuver, which represents moving armies (or navies) around established fronts to attack an enemy’s unprotected flanks or weak areas behind established enemy defensive positions. A turning movement is similar but represents a more localized affair, often involving an army sneaking around another just to take that enemy force from their weakly held flanks or the rear. It also represents a sort of military supply-chain or logistical disruption: seizing or destroying non-military or lightly held targets and undermining the enemy ability to sustain their ‘main’ battlefront. This is generally referred to as interdiction. In all cases, the desired result is an enemy defeat or surrender with a minimum of casualties –with the most pronounced reduction in casualties being associated with supply-chain and logistics disruption.

As yet unmentioned is the military dilemma posed to the enemy by such maneuvers: they must either leave their engaged forces embattled on the front, or attempt to divide their forces in order to rebuff the new enemy threat. The first choice allows the new threat to continue their surprise military action, the second weakens the main force and increases the likelihood of a loss on that front.

In Oakenfist’s case, sailing up the Greenblood likely was an attempt to blockade river traffic that would otherwise provide the majority of the food needed to sustain the Dornish military in the Prince’s Pass. There is an extremely relevant bit of real-world history here: More of Napoleon’s casualties were caused by spoiled food than from combat. Also, using history as an example (Alexander of Macedonia in this case) most armies had only about a week or two worth of food in their immediate supply-train (source). Seizing the Dornish supply lines effectively doomed the Dornish military and thus compelled surrender.

There are political ramifications to such strategies as well. The smallfolk, guilds and lesser lords often only seek peace and care not which king rules insofar as they are allowed to live peaceably, without fear for their families. Thus the more effective an operational flanking or disruption –the more of an impact it has on these desires– the more likely there will be a popular call for surrender. This seems particularly true if surrender has the appearance of saving more lives and a quicker return to normalcy than continued conflict. In addition, lords who have significantly contributed to the enemy war effort will find themselves suddenly weak to the machinations of others: what good is dying or losing the majority of your forces in a doomed conflict, only to have your holdings seized by the enemy, and likely bartered off to rivals to buy their loyalty? Lastly, by expediting a campaign’s resolution with a minimum of casualties, there will be much less bitterness among the defeated towards their conquerors.

Key Lessons

The various observations above are likely those that Stannis could have readily drawn from Daeron’s “vainglorious” Conquest of Dorne. These findings can be distilled somewhat, into the following points:

  1. If a general provides a militarily entrenched or vital battlefront, it creates a dilemma for an enemy commander. Either they must accept that the battle cannot be won or the entrenched/vital position taken, or that they must commit even more resources to such an endeavor. Here the general hopes to cause the enemy to overcommit resources such that their interior is vulnerable.
  2. Simultaneously, the general maneuvers a second force to a position behind the battlefront and deep in enemy territory. This maneuver must be effected either with superior mobility or with covert action. This force can have any of several purposes: to capture key hostages, seize key supply/logistical centers, disrupt communications between the battlefront and noncombatant/political leadership, sow regional unrest, and possibly weaken the enemy’s battlefront.

Although the particulars of the action (such as the scope, size, and goals) may vary substantially, I am going to refer to the application of this ploy –as manifested in the vague points above– as the Oakenfist strategy.


The picture that emerges here is that Stannis has a well-founded appreciation for the combination of attrition and maneuver warfare. He knew that drawing the Dornish into the Prince’s Pass was important, but equally vital was Oakenfist’s maneuvers that disabled the Dornish supply-train. The major battle permitted the secondary attack, and the secondary attack quickened the victory at the major battle.

Further Insights: Robert’s Rebellion and Storm’s End

What often goes unnoticed by readers and the characters of A Song of Ice and Fire is how crucial Stannis was to his brother’s eventual victory in Robert’s Rebellion.

After Robert was narrowly defeated in the Battle of Ashford, Mace Tyrell and Paxter Redwyne set about besieging and blockading Storm’s End. This was an example of that same combination of attrition and maneuver warfare: Storm’s End was Robert’s seat of power and originally the base for his logistical support. By besieging it, they pronounced certain doom for Robert’s army. Clearly the loyalist plan was to sever Robert from his source of supply and subsequently Connington would march on a fatigued and famished Robert to end the war. This would be one possible example of such an ‘Oakenfist’ attrition/maneuver hybrid: with Storm’s End as the entrenched battlefront and Connington’s pursuit of a weakened Robert as the attack on the vulnerable enemy. Under normal circumstances it would make more sense for Connington to just let Robert’s army wither, but predictably they knew his only salvation lay in heading north to join the Tullys and Starks; this is why Connington made to intercept Robert.

However, they underestimated Stannis’s tenacity. In sustaining his defense of Storm’s End beyond the edge of reason, Stannis subverted the siege, reversing the Oakenfist strategy. By keeping Tyrell and Paxter occupied, he prevented their forces from joining with Rhaegar or Connington’s armies, which would have vastly swayed the course of the war.

By reversing the strategy, he allowed Robert to use his famous forced marches to arrive at Stony Sept well in advance of a reduced Connington force, and be suitably rescued by the combined Tully and Stark forces.

Differing Opinions: Jon and Stannis

Returning to the conversation between Jon and Stannis in Jon IV–ADWD, Jon cites Daeron’s use of the goat tracks. He views the Conquest from a tactical level and attributes the key victory to what essentially is an example of the turning movement I established earlier. Stannis rebukes Jon’s interpretation and refers to Oakenfist’s campaign as being the decisive factor. The comparison here is stark, Jon sees the narrow tactical applications, Stannis sees the entire war.

Thus the importance of Jon and Stannis’s exchange concerning Conquest of Dorne is vital to the narrative in A Song of Ice and Fire. It’s establishes that Stannis ‘knows’ about this kind of ploy, thus its introduction as a plot twist –some hidden component of Stannis’s campaign– would not be seen as deus ex machina or ‘pulling something out of your ass’. Instead it would be an example of a carefully guarded allusion to his larger strategy.

Given these observations, at the very least you would expect that Stannis knows that attempting to simply besiege the Boltons at Winterfell is an abhorrently poor tactic. Besieging Winterfell in combination with some other military action, however, may be incredibly valuable in defeating them. This alone should suggest that he’s doing more than what is obvious to the reader.

Principles of the Northern Campaign


  1. Would Stannis consider the Oakenfist strategy?
  2. Meeting the Prerequisites

So Stannis knows quite well that a combination of attrition and maneuver warfare has historically been critical to winning wars. We know he cares far more about winning the war than winning battles. We also know that he has extensive familiarity with besieging castles as defensible as Winterfell.

To suggest that he attempted to march on Winterfell without a strategy is absurd.* The question is, what strategy was it?

* – Let me be clear that Stannis could march on a different stronghold without a strategy for Winterfell in mind. He could attempt to find one on the way.

Would Stannis consider the Oakenfist strategy?

The underlying question is… was his little outburst about Daeron more than just a rant? Could it have been an indication of a strategy he had (or was still) considering?

Although the previous discussion about Stannis’s opinion on Conquest of Dorne largely indicates that he is certainly capable of using such a strategy, there are additional factors that are unique to his circumstances. I believe a careful, reasoned exploration of these factors makes answering that question reasonable.

  • Stannis wants to win quickly and decisively. He wants to demonstrate his righteousness to the north and win their loyalty. He wants to avoid protracted battle. This is both inline with his pursuit of the Iron Throne and his perceived role in the battle against the Others. He hopes to quickly establish momentum that swings the ambivalent northern lords to his cause. Compare this to the real-world example of Hannibal Barca’s victory in the Battle of Cannae, whose tremendous outcome vastly swayed loyalties throughout Italy and beyond.
  • He is cautious. If he marches his forces, there are tremendous logistical concerns, particularly since he has few regional allies. This puts him at a disadvantage if he is forced to engage a heavily fortified Bolton defense. As his own experience has taught him, he risks being outlasted by the defenders. If Bolton can summon other allies, he further risks being cut off from his supply chain, or caught between the defenders and another army. This was the position that Renly had him in prior to Renly’s assassination, which -keep in mind- would have been disastrous for him had he lacked Melisandre. Thus another point suggesting he wouldn’t be so foolish.
  • He knows can’t win a siege unless the defender chooses to give up. Stannis’s experience teaches him the ultimate futility of marching his forces to attack a heavily fortified (“strongly held”) castle such as Winterfell. He cannot readily weaken the Bolton army or take Winterfell with an army at their doorstep. He must find a way to provoke Bolton into a vulnerable position.
  • Causing an entrenched enemy to expose a vulnerability requires the creation of a situation that compels risky enemy behavior. Daeron’s fighting in the Prince’s Pass resulted in the weakened Dornish interior that Oakenfist was then able to exploit. Similarly, Stannis must find a way to weaken Winterfell to the point where a siege or covert take-over is viable.
    The most literal interpretation of the Oakenfist strategy would consist of drawing Bolton into a pitched battle, leaving Winterfell or Bolton’s armies vulnerable. A secondary Stannis force could covertly move to a position that disconnects the Bolton army from their source of defense and supply. It could be used to invest Winterfell and prevent all troop movement. It could be used to draw additional forces away from Winterfell.
  • Compelling risky behavior requires that the opponent must not know about your secondary forces or be able to predict their capabilities. Dorne was either unaware of Oakenfist’s approach or completely unaware of his prowess in his campaign up the Greenblood. Likewise, if Bolton knew about secret Stannis allies, he would never commit to any endeavor that might allow either of Stannis’s known forces to strike at him in a moment of vulnerability.
    Stannis must have Bolton convinced that committing resources to his lure will be a net benefit to him, and more importantly, not put himself at risk.

Thus Stannis is more-or-less required to use the kind of method encapsulated in the Oakenfist strategy. Any other option puts the likelihood of victory almost entirely in Bolton’s hands. According to the outlined issues and the general Oakenfist strategy, Stannis will need to identify and meet several prerequisites.

Meeting the Prerequisites

We see that in order to execute such a strategy, Stannis needs a few ‘ingredients’ in order to set up the situation.

  1. Irresistible Bait
    If Stannis wants to compel the Boltons to pursue him, he needs to provide them with a strong enough motivation to send troops.
  2. The entrenched battlefront – The reason to leave Winterfell
    A key to the strategy is getting the enemy (the Boltons here) to send so many troops that their defenses or interior are significantly weakened. One way to do this is to engender the impression that ‘more troops’ will allow the enemy to win. In more simplistic terms, he just needs a reason for enemy troops to leave Winterfell. He essentially just needs enemy troops to be unwisely deployed, however that might be achieved.
  3. An unexpected or highly-mobile secondary force.
    In order to effect his strategy, Stannis needs to have that army or force who can surprise Bolton and take advantage of an exposed vulnerability.

With these requirements in mind, we can begin to look at Stannis’s campaign plans, both before his counsel in Jon IV, ADWD and afterwards.

The Malingering Merman: The Manderly Plan


  1. Evidence of Stannis’s Lust for Manderly
  2. The Manderly Strategy — Early Version
  3. The Manderly Strategy — Late Version
  4. A Strategy Sunk

So at some point Stannis was really wanting Manderly’s loyalty. Obviously Stannis wants everybody’s loyalty: but he took a particular issue with Manderly’s ambivalence. Why?

Getting right to the point, I think it’s because he wanted access to Manderly’s forces (both naval and land). He wanted access to the White Knife river which goes all the way up by Winterfell.

Evidence of Stannis’s Lust for Manderly

Is there any evidence that Stannis wanted Manderly for such a purpose?

If Winterfell was the heart of the north, White Harbor was its mouth. Its firth had remained free of ice even in the depths of winter for centuries. With winter coming on, that could mean much and more. So could the city’s silver.

The phrasing here suggests that access to the firth was far more important to Stannis than the city’s riches. Why could that be? What is the importance of an unfrozen river entry?

“Then a long cruel winter fell,” said Ser Bartimus. “The White Knife froze hard, and even the firth was icing up.”

Later, when Ser Corliss Penny wondered aloud whether an entire army had ever frozen to death in a winter storm, the wolves laughed. “This is no winter,” declared Big Bucket Wull. “Up in the hills we say that autumn kisses you, but winter fucks you hard. This is only autumn’s kiss.”

Collectively, this proves that the firth and White Knife are accessible now and should remain that way for some time.

“I have been building warships for more than a year. Some you saw, but there are as many more hidden up the White Knife. Even with the losses I have suffered, I still command more heavy horse than any other lord north of the Neck. My walls are strong, and my vaults are full of silver. Oldcastle and Widow’s Watch will take their lead from me. My bannermen include a dozen petty lords and a hundred landed knights. I can deliver King Stannis the allegiance of all the lands east of the White Knife, from Widow’s Watch and Ramsgate to the Sheepshead Hills and the headwaters of the Broken Branch. All this I pledge to do if you will meet my price.”

“I can bring your terms to the king, but—”

Lord Wyman cut him off.

This is probably the most important passage of all. First of all, we see that Manderly has hidden warships up the White Knife. This tells us that warships can navigate upriver to at least some extent, something Stannis probably knows or could have gleaned from Davos or any amiable northerner. I believe this is an important point.

Additionally, when Manderly makes his huge-but-conditional offer of aid, notice that Davos talks about bringing those conditions to Stannis, but is cut off before he can complete the sentence. A very strong implication here is that Stannis gave Davos orders to secure one or all of Manderly’s offered gifts, but hopes to get Manderly to deliver them on just the promise of future satisfaction. At the very least, that’s what Manderly was thinking, which is why he cut Davos off.

He saw three river runners too, long lean boats built tough to brave the swift currents and rocky shoots of the White Knife.

Thus even if you believe that warships sailing up the White Knife will be stymied by cataracts and rapids, there are other boats that can navigate much farther. This could be of benefit if using the river was strategically important.

Now, taking these excerpts into consideration and Stannis’s general appreciation for the distribution of his forces, remember that Stannis sent his entire fleet to White Harbor, risking horrible storms in the effort.

Recall what I said about simply waiting out an enemy, both earlier in this essay and in commentary on the Discourses on Livy. If Stannis was simply concerned with defending against naval attacks, why wouldn’t he simply opt to leave his navy at Eastwatch? By staying at Eastwatch he forces opponents to risk those same storms and come at him withered and weak. By abandoning Eastwatch he loses the ability to prevent a blockade. It’s a strategically inferior move… unless the move was made as part of an aggressive agenda –an attempt for proactive control of the war’s narrative instead of waiting to respond to enemy movements.

The Manderly Strategy: Early Version

Let’s consider the hypothetical scenario wherein Stannis did secure Manderly’s loyalty.

Stannis had been pursuing Manderly’s loyalty since before Ramsay’s departure for Moat Cailin. This strongly suggests that he wanted Manderly for a purpose other than seizing the Dreadfort: Stannis would not move on the Dreadfort because Ramsay’s garrison would still be there. So clearly Arnolf hadn’t started communicating his lies about the Dreadfort, which wouldn’t happen until after Ramsay and Hother left (prior to Jon IV).

However, Winterfell would remain vulnerable and Stannis could openly attempt to march on it. After all, had he not been regularly promising to establish some lord as the Lord of Winterfell? Taking Winterfell has obvious political and military ramifications that would bolster Stannis’s campaign.

Elsewhere in the north, Davos shows a concern for the timing of his arrival in White Harbor and implies that the timing of securing Manderly’s loyalty is of a known strategic value:

The Ryswells and the Dustins had surprised the ironmen on the Fever River and put their longships to the torch. That was worse. And now the Bastard of Bolton was riding south with Hother Umber to join them for an attack on Moat Cailin. “The Whoresbane his own self,” claimed a riverman who’d just brought a load of hides and timber down the White Knife, “with three hundred spearmen and a hundred archers. Some Hornwood men have joined them, and Cerwyns too.” That was worst of all.

With Davos’s delayed arrival in White Harbor, what is the significance of Davos’s concern that Moat Cailin will soon be opened? Obviously because Stannis and Davos did not want that to happen. But how would Manderly have helped with that?

Had Manderly declared for Stannis early enough, there would have been only one viable, sensible and immediate option. Knowing that there is one hostile Bolton army at the Dreadfort and one approaching from the south, through Moat Cailin, Manderly’s best option would have been to simply present a threat to the Boltons. The main point of doing so would be to induce caution. The basis for saying that Manderly could pose a threat is his declaration:

“Even with the losses I have suffered, I still command more heavy horse than any other lord north of the Neck.”

This strongly implies that Manderly has more military might than the three hundred he showed up with at Winterfell in the course of actual events.

The idea that Manderly could strike at Bolton anywhere along the kingsroad would likely cause Roose to stop at Barrowton to strategize and call his banners. Manderly definitely has a smaller army than Bolton, but Manderly’s access to the White Knife gives him mobility. Thus Manderly would have been the entrenched battlefront. This is a unique variation on the Oakenfist because the ‘bait’ is not located near the entrenched front. It doesn’t need to be, the combination of the front and the bait only need to collectively give the secondary force the opportunity to seize an advantage.

Thus, Stannis would then use this opportunity to advance on Roose Bolton as well, acting as the highly-mobile secondary force. Ramsay’s army is paltry compared to Stannis and consists of the Dreadfort garrison, thus Stannis could move down the kingsroad with relative impunity: a relatively small garrison at Winterfell should hold Ramsay’s forces off indefinitely – should he attempt to attack.

Roose Bolton on the other hand does have a sizable army, but risks exposing himself to a Manderly attack if he advances toward Stannis, and risks a loss on both fronts if he splits his forces to engage Stannis and Manderly separately. Waiting poses the risk that Stannis and Manderly could combine forces or maneuver at the operational level in an attempt to envelop him.

Thus Stannis would then have achieved a huge strategic advantage over the Boltons and likely swing many of the northerners in his favor. This is probably one of the earliest strategies that Stannis concocted, back when he thought he could sway Manderly, before he knew about Ramsay marching, and before he knew about Arya’s forthcoming wedding.

Shown visually, the plot would appear like this:

earlymanderly*   *   *

The Manderly Strategy: Late Version

Ultimately we know that the ‘early’ version of the Manderly plan was impossible because Moat Cailin was already being engaged by the time Davos reached White Harbor. And yet Davos does not quit his mission to meet Wyman.

Given the change in the position of the armies, how would a ‘late’ Manderly declaration of loyalty to Stannis work? This is another what if, but still hypothesizes a valid strategy for Manderly’s unique utility.

Stannis thinks that by taking Bolton’s “castle, herds and harvest” he will earn Bolton’s ire. and attention. He clearly believes that taking the Dreadfort will be compelling enough for Bolton to move against him: the Dreadfort is his irrestible bait. This is based off of the false intelligence that Arnolf Karstark has been providing to Stannis.

The entrenched battlefront is the siege he expects when Bolton arrives to try and retake the Dreadfort. In accordance with siege fundamentals, Bolton will have to send a huge portion of his army in order to reclaim his castle.

“Fifty men inside a castle are worth five hundred outside.”

Given this basic advice, thus Stannis can reliably expect that if Bolton does try to retake it will take a huge amount of the Bolton forces, possibly all of them.

The unexpected secondary force in this hypothetical scenario would have been Davos and/or Manderly. They would have been able to move on Winterfell, either overland or up the White Knife (as Oakenfist did) to invest Winterfell or envelop Bolton’s army. The particular strategy chosen would evolve depending on Bolton’s actions.

The following image helps explain what Stannis may have been wanting to do:

latemanderlyThe strategy described here and in the image above is what Stannis most likely envisioned around the time of the events of Jon II and Jon IV in A Dance with Dragons, before he gave up on Manderly and before he presumably decided to spare Mance in secret.

Note that this strategy does not account for the Karstark betrayal, which Stannis did know about at the time this strategy emerged.

A Strategy Sunk

Unfortunately for Stannis, Manderly is dealing with a host of political issues (and personal agendas) that prevent him from supporting Stannis’s claim. Additionally, Sallador Saan has abandoned him, leaving him with zero naval power or land forces with which to execute a covert or high-mobility strike on a vulnerable Bolton position.

In sending his Hand and his entire fleet to White Harbor, he has betrayed a tremendous interest in Manderly. The fact that Stannis vents his frustrations about Manderly at his war council shows that his interest with Manderly was immediate. He wanted his navy and men for an immediate strategic purpose. Manderly was going to be vital to Stannis’s northern campaign. Given the geographic distance between them –and the fact that Stannis clearly hopes to draw Bolton to the Dreadfort– it makes perfect sense that he hoped to use Manderly against a weakened Winterfell or the like.

Manderly’s absence cripples Stannis’s opportunity to execute the kind of effective deception outlined in the Oakenfist strategy. Stannis is forced to rely on his bait –stealing the Dreadfort– and outlasting any Bolton armies that approach while winter sets in. While it does not cripple his campaign, Manderly’s indifference certainly slows Stannis down.

Stannis therefore sees his northern campaign grinding to a halt unless a new option emerges.

The Oakenfist strategy is gone. You won’t see it reappear as a Stannis tactic for quite some time in this essay.

Stealing the Winter Rose: The Mance Rayder Plan


  1. Melisandre’s Vision — A Reprieve For Mance
  2. Signalling the Unburnt King
  3. The Lord Commander’s Permission
  4. The Flight Plan
  5. A Message from Stannis
  6. The Counsel of the Great Lord Snow

Immediately prior to Stannis’s war council in Jon IV, ADWD we know that Stannis must have finally decided that he had lost Manderly and perhaps Davos and his fleet. He says as much. His surprise secondary force is gone.

However, another interesting note is that Stannis rather conspicuously assigns Rattleshirt to Jon, who just so happens turns out to be the one person who could capture probably the single most effective bait of all –Arya Stark. I strongly believe that Stannis knew all along about Mance’s survival and also knew about the planned wedding from as early as Jon IV, ADWD.

Melisandre’s Vision — A Reprieve for Mance

Near the end of Jon I – ADWD, Melisandre confides that Jon may be right about sparing Mance:

“It may be that you are not wrong about the wildling king. I shall pray for the Lord of Light to send me guidance.”

We also know that her vision of the ‘grey girl on a dying horse’ is the basis of her argument for Jon to release Mance.

The girl. I must find the girl again, the grey girl on the dying horse… …She had seen the girl only once.

I strongly believe that Melisandre saw this girl prior to Mance’s execution and informed Stannis. Since Mance’s has a proven history of infiltrating Winterfell, he would prove to be an invaluable avenue of retrieving Arya from the Boltons. It further explains the bizarre action of Stannis personally assigning probably the most disloyal wildling of all to Jon Snow, when there were hundreds of others. I further explain these and other arguments in another essay.

The incentive to try and rescue Arya is because her capture would have a different effect on the Bolton coalition. Seizing the Dreadfort is likely to garner a military response from a somewhat unified body of Bolton bannermen. Quite differently, seizing Arya is much more likely to give bannermen the pretext they need to change allegiances. Arya becomes the new bait. Another point in favor of Stannis being aware of Mance’s actions, notice that Stannis is not at all shocked by the appearance of Arya at the crofter’s village in the sample Theon chapter from The Winds of Winter. It would be fair to think that Stannis was expecting her.

It must be noted that Mance’s rescue operation would need to have been coordinated with Stannis somehow, to ensure that Mance knows where Arya is and where to bring her. Since Mance was left behind, Stannis would have to have a method in place by which to inform Mance and Melisandre to begin their rescue mission, and additionally have worked out the place where Arya must be brought once retrieved. I will discuss the logistics of these plans later in this section.

Other than that change of the ‘bait’ and the loss of Manderly the strategy is generally no different from the earlier ‘late Manderly’ strategy. As noted earlier it would now consist of holding the Dreadfort against the Bolton armies until they are defeated by the weather or baggage train / logistical issues. This tactic has the disadvantage of engendering a long siege, not the quick victory Stannis wants.

Again a visual explanation:

stealingthewinterroseLike the hypothetical scenario where Manderly declared for Stannis, this strategy does not account for the Karstark betrayal.

Signalling the Unburnt King

So if Mance was left with Jon, poised to move to abduct Arya upon the proper signal; what was that signal? What was the trigger by which Mance and Melisandre knew to start their rescue operation?

Let’s get right to the point:

Mance’s signal was the announcement of the Ramsay-Arya marriage.

As I said before, I strongly believe that Stannis knew about the forthcoming wedding before leaving Castle Black. Thus this signal was expected.

It certainly explains why the letter arrives in Jon VI, ADWD (in Mance’s presence) and immediately subsequently Melisandre approached Jon that very night knowing about Arya’s wedding, showing that Mance told her.

The Lord Commander’s Permission

Once the wedding announcement is received, Melisandre is almost immediately courting Jon for permission to “save his sister”.

It should be noted that she asks for permission twice: once as described above, and again in her own POV chapter. In both cases she declares that he just needs to ‘let’ her save his sister.

“Take my hand,” she said again, “and let me save your sister.”

“You wanted a way to save your little sister and still hold fast to the honor that means so much to you, to the vows you swore before your wooden god.”

What’s ironic is that Jon has never vocalized a desire to save his sister. The only time he’s spoken to Melisandre about Arya was in Jon VI ADWD and he never uttered a word about wanting to save Arya. He may have thought about it, but he never said anything.

Melisandre is attempting to emotionally manipulate Jon in order to secure permission for Mance’s departure. Melisandre further attempts to prove her sorcerous power to Jon three times in order to gain said permission:

  • Her brief glamor as Ygritte and her manipulation of Ghost (end of Jon VI ADWD)
  • Her prediction about the three eyeless heads (middle of Melisandre ADWD)
  • Her reveal of the glamor on Mance (end of Melisandre ADWD)

After the third, Jon finally capitulates and gives Mance and Melisandre the permission they need. Notice that Melisandre thereafter makes no unnecessary contact with Jon aside from brief encounters after Alys Karstark’s wedding and prior to the arrival of the Pink Letter.

The Flight Plan

The are two other details that Mance would need for a successful rescue mission:

  • Where is the wedding going to be? Where will he find Arya? Where is the target?
  • Where does he need to take Arya after he absconds with her? Where is the destination?

Under the strategy proposed in this section, since Stannis expects to be at the Dreadfort, the Dreadfort is the destination. It is a fact that would have been known prior to the start Mance’s mission.

The unknown is the location of the wedding. In the ‘Stealing the Winter Rose’ plan, the wedding invitation provides the location of the rescue. In this hypothetical strategy, I simply just assumed that Winterfell would be the target location, but it could practically be anywhere in the north without fundamentally altering the strategy.

A Message from Stannis

I believe that as a secondary method of triggering Melisandre and Mance, Stannis had planned a letter to be sent to Winterfell.

If you recall in Jon VII, ADWD; Jon receives his letter from Stannis, providing him with news of the victory at Deepwood. There is some very strange language near the end of the letter:

And word has come to us that Roose Bolton moves toward Winterfell with all his power, there to wed his bastard to your half sister. He must not be allowed to restore the castle to its former strength. We march against him. Arnolf Karstark and Mors Umber will join us. I will save your sister if I can, and find a better match for her than Ramsay Snow.

There it is again, that strange “save your sister” refrain that Melisandre had been working on Jon for the last two chapters. Additionally this section clearly identifies that the wedding will be at Winterfell, and that Stannis will be somewhere between Deepwood and Winterfell. Collectively this is all of the information Mance needs to begin.

The fact that Stannis uses ‘save your sister’ in a context eerily similar to Melisandre is conspicuous. Even Jon comments on the oddity, and the emotional manipulation present:

He glanced at the letter again. I will save your sister if I can. A surprisingly tender sentiment from Stannis, though undercut by that final, brutal if I can and the addendum and find a better match for her than Ramsay Snow.

Thus ‘saving your sister’ has the appearance of possibly being some kind of code-phrase.

The Counsel of the Great Lord Snow

The undoing of this ‘Stealing the Winter Rose’ strategy was the advice of Jon Snow at Stannis’s war council in Jon IV ADWD.

  • He gave solid advice about why attempting to take the Dreadfort was a catastrophically bad idea.
  • He negotiated for Stannis’s wildlings while presenting Stannis with a method to find another three thousand men.
  • He showed Stannis where he could really find a victory that would start earning him the loyalty of other lords: Deepwood Motte.

While this strategy was eventually abandoned, keep the principles behind the use of Mance Rayder in mind. I reuse them in subsequent strategies.

Goat Tracks: The Deepwood Opening Plan


  1. Unite the Clans
  2. The Immovable Object
  3. An Incomplete Strategy

After discussing things with Jon Snow in Jon IV, ADWD, Stannis comes to have a completely different set goals.

Unite the Clans

He no longer has the idea of taking the Dreadfort as his bait. He still secretly has an avenue for it in the form of rescuing Arya using Mance, however. Arya is the true bait. The Mance Rayder ‘rescue mission’ is still viable.

Going with Jon’s suggestion also nets Stannis approximately 3,000 additional men. This is a significant number, but it pales compared to what Bolton can muster, particularly when you consider that Bolton would likely be at Winterfell.

Collectively, taking Deepwood is a smart idea (certainly better than attempting the Dreadfort) because it nets Stannis more men, defeats the ironborn and perhaps sways more lords in his favor.

The Immovable Object

Unfortunately, this plan still leaves Stannis with no secondary force that could help execute an Oakenfist-style strategy: In and of itself this plan gives him no greater advantage to help take Winterfell. The best Stannis could hope for is that Arya’s abduction would result in Bolton sending a large army towards him, and that Stannis could use superior tactics to win on the battlefield.

Even if he succeeds at that, Stannis still faces the prospect of besieging an almost invincible fortress.

This ultimately means that upon leaving for Deepwood, Stannis knows he will need to look for an advantage along the way in order to have any real chance against a fortified Winterfell.

Because Mance’s rescue mission hinges on his ability to inconspicuously gain entry to a lord’s hall, he is bound by the timing of Ramsay’s wedding, thus he will need to take action as soon as the signal is received.

An Incomplete Strategy

Thus his only solid plan is to take Deepwood and then re-evaluate the strategic situation and go from there. This illustration helps convey the details of the plan up to the liberation of Deepwood:

deepwoodbeginningThis strategy is a fair encapsulation of what actually transpires during Stannis’s march. Thus you can consider this image and this section the “official” version of events (insofar as this post is concerned). I’m not saying that I know the truth, I’m saying that out of all the proposed strategies I’ve shown thus far, this is the most likely to be true.

The March of Madness: An Incomplete Strategy


  1. Apparent Neurosis
  2. The Genius Behind the Lunacy
  3. No Stupidity Left Behind

So what does Stannis decide to do after taking Deepwood? What new knowledge does he uncover and how does he plan to use it?

Unlike previous sections, this does not deal with a hypothetical-but-abandoned strategy. Instead, this deals with the strategy that Stannis appears to be using in A Dance with Dragons. The reason for this analysis is to identify why it must be an incomplete understanding of his plans.

This strategy specifically removes my assumptions about Mance Rayder’s secret collusion with Stannis and Stannis’s prior knowledge of the Karstark betrayal. I want to demonstrate the flaws of removing these assumptions.

The Appearance of Neurosis

If we are to take Stannis’s behavior in The King’s Prize, ADWD and The Sacrifice, ADWD at face value, then there are some observations that point out just how absurd taking things at face value looks:

  •  Get Winterfell or die trying
    The first oddity that boggles me is that Stannis has transformed into 50 Cent.

    “But we will march, and we will free Winterfell … or die in the attempt.”

    “It may be that we shall lose this battle,” the king said grimly. “In Braavos you may hear that I am dead. It may even be true. You shall find my sellswords nonetheless.”

    Suddenly the same king who didn’t even leave Dragonstone until he had a plan in place to defeat Renly and take Storm’s End is marching almost to almost certain death against a castle that is just as impregnable?
    How can this be the same Stannis that critiqued the naivete that Daeron simply won over Dorne because of because of simple heroics!?

  • The Unstoppable Braavosi
    How is it that Tycho manages to travel from Castle Black to Deepwood to Winterfell and finally to Stannis’s village?Chapters in A Dance with Dragons that are close together are often happening sequentially in time. Meaning events in Jon II transpire before those of Davos I, which in turn happens before Jon III.
    This is important because it means that Tycho began his march around the same time Stannis began his. If the distance between Deepwood and Winterfell is indeed 300 leagues, then Tycho managed to travel roughly over three times that far (or around 900 leagues) in the same time it took Stannis to cover around 250+.
  • Dying in the Village
    Why is Stannis lingering in the crofter’s village for so long? They say they are snowbound, but Tycho clearly proves otherwise. Stannis is losing men daily which certainly decreases the likelihood of ever taking Winterfell by force. Why stay there? Do we really believe that he’s going mad with hope that R’hllor will save him?
  • Who cares about Stannis anyways?
    Why on earth would anyone try and attack Stannis when they can just let winter wipe him out. It’s a basic concept of strategy, don’t fight someone who will perish of their own accord. Stannis and Bolton both know this… so why is Stannis standing around in winter? Bolton has absolutely zero incentive to do anything about Stannis.
  • Zeroing in on betrayal.
    I go into more detail in my essay regarding the Karstark betrayal. But it’s rather conspicuous that Stannis immediately zeroes in on the Karstark maester and even goes directly to questioning him about giving directions to Roose Bolton. Contrast that with his capture of the Karstarks proper who he doesn’t care to interrogate at all.
  • Ho-hum about a girl
    Stannis seems completely disinterested in Arya. Every single thing he does in THEON I – TWOW is wholly dedicated to managing his forces, gathering intelligence, handling betrayals and dispatching orders. With a single dismissive line he tasks Justin Massey with taking Arya back to Jon.
  • Massey’s love interest
    Didn’t Stannis say that Massey and Horpe were both after Winterfell?

    “Horpe and Massey aspire to your father’s seat. Massey wants the wildling princess too.”

    It’s interesting that Massey shows a high interest in Asha, which she detects is because of her heritage.
    Why then when Stannis indicates that he will find ‘a better match’ for Arya, does Massey show no interest in her? Whosoever marries Arya will have the best claim to Winterfell after all.

The Genius Behind the Lunacy

Collecting all of these observations, you just have a picture of a commander that is completely inconsistent with what we know about him.

Referring back to Stannis’s prior military experiences and his study of Oakenfist’s strategy, it just doesn’t make any sense.

In particular, the various observations about Arya’s arrival being a total non-surprise, the deliberate, calculated nature of the maester’s interrogation, the capture-without-questioning of the Karstarks, the apparently deliberate stagnation of the advance on Winterfell… they are highly suggestive that something is afoot.

This is where I bring back my theories that Stannis knew about Mance Rayder’s rescue mission all along, and that Stannis knew about the Karstark betrayal. They explain most of the insanities: Stannis expected Arya’s rescue, He had prior knowledge of the Karstark plot, and lastly waited to confront the maester and Karstarks when he was sure Bolton knew how to find him. He subsequently captures the Karstarks to prevent their plot from continuing to open betrayal.

No Stupidity Left Behind

The theories that Mance and Stannis collaborated and that Stannis was aware of the Karstark plot do not resolve several remaining questions. Without a decent resolution, these issues remain and seem to indicate stupidity on Stannis’s behalf, and worse –inconsistency.

  • With Arya captured, why does Stannis remain at the crofter’s village?
  • How does he expect to take Winterfell?
  • What does he hope to accomplish by dying in the effort to capture Winterfell? Can he really be that suicidal?

These questions are plumbed and answered in the next few sections that peel the onion and reveal what most likely has been happening.

The Night Lamp: The Pirate King Strategy


  1. Mance in Barrowton
  2. At the Crofter’s Village
  3. Aenys and Hosteen: Paullus and Varro
  4. The Late Lord Manderly
  5. The Battle of the False Light
  6. No Endgame in Sight

This version of Stannis’s post-Deepwood strategy incorporates Mance’s mission and the Karstark betrayal.

After taking Deepwood, Stannis gains specific intelligence. He knows about the marriage announcement that Asha received. He could learn this from Asha, Sybelle Glover or even from the Deepwood maester. He knows about the marriage being moved to Winterfell.

After much debate with his councilors in THE KING’S PRIZE – ADWD, Stannis declares that they will march on Winterfell ‘or die in the attempt’.

Mance in Barrowton

Prior to leaving Deepwood Motte, Stannis sends his message to Jon, the one that would provoke the Mance/Melisandre rescue attempt (JON VII). However, Mance and Melisandre had already taken action because of the message Jon received earlier (JON VI).

The perhaps-unexpected announcement at the Wall throws a monkey-wrench into the works. The reason for this is because the announcement says the wedding will be in Barrowton (although in truth it moves to Winterfell). Thus if Mance wants to rescue Arya, he needs to move south fast to make it in time.

Perhaps this is why Mance demands horses:

“I will need horses. Half a dozen good ones. And this is nothing I can do alone.”

I mean it’s perfectly reasonable to perhaps ask for horses in general… but asking specifically for good ones means he plans to ride them hard.

To support the idea that Mance was ever at Barrowton would require some sort of evidence or reasonable clues.

When Roose and Theon are riding through Barrowton, Theon makes the following observation:

They rode past a stable and a shuttered inn with a wheat sheaf painted on its sign. Reek heard music coming through its windows.

A stable and inn, quite the apropos destination for the discerning traveler on horseback.

And there is music coming from the inn, but that doesn’t prove anything. What makes this more compelling is the following observation:

Lord Manderly had brought musicians from White Harbor, but none were singers, so when Abel turned up at the gates with a lute and six women, he had been made welcome.

There is no mention of military men during their ride. No soldiers wandering the streets, etc. It seems likely that the soldiers are all bivouacked outside the city proper.

The north is well-known for its lack of singers:

Once, when she was just a little girl, a wandering singer had stayed with them at Winterfell for half a year. An old man he was, with white hair and windburnt cheeks, but he sang of knights and quests and ladies fair, and Sansa had cried bitter tears when he left them, and begged her father not to let him go. “The man has played us every song he knows thrice over,” Lord Eddard told her gently. “I cannot keep him here against his will. You need not weep, though. I promise you, other singers will come.”

They hadn’t, though, not for a year or more. Sansa had prayed to the Seven in their sept and old gods of the heart tree, asking them to bring the old man back, or better still to send another singer, young and handsome. But the gods never answered, and the halls of Winterfell stayed silent.

In every case throughout the books, a musician playing at an inn was also a singer. There’s also not exactly a huge assortment of musicians in the north. Thus it’s incredibly likely that the musicians which were at Barrowton that night were likely Mance and his spearwives.

At some point the wedding is moved to Winterfell, Mance simply follows behind and joins up as a singer at some point.

At the Crofter’s Village

The rest is fairly straight-forward and as-per the book, with Stannis ending up three days from Winterfell at the crofter’s village.

Under the reasonable expectation that Stannis is not being willfully stupid, Mance eventually rescues Arya as per the book and Stannis deals with the Karstarks as I’ve already explained.

Mance’s actions and Stannis’s reversal of the Karstark betrayal have guaranteed that some portion of Bolton’s strength will attack Stannis at his location. In reality, the Freys and Manderly’s are both dispatched to confront Stannis.

Aenys and Hosteen: Paullus and Varro

No study of Aenys and Hosteen Frey and how their personas will affect battle strategy would be complete without recognizing their most obvious historical counterparts: Gaius Terentius Varro and Lucius Aemilius Paullus, the two Roman consuls who were in command of the Roman army which suffered a calamitous defeat in the Battle of Cannae.

Hosteen is rash, headstrong and quick to run into a fight. Aenys is cautious and shrewd, he’s considered a skilled commander. Compare to Paullus and Varro:

Varro, in command on the first day, is presented by ancient sources as a man of reckless nature and hubris, and was determined to defeat Hannibal. While the Romans were approaching Cannae, a small portion of Hannibal’s forces ambushed them. Varro successfully repelled the attack and continued on his way to Cannae. This victory, though essentially a mere skirmish with no lasting strategic value, greatly bolstered the confidence of the Roman army, perhaps to overconfidence on Varro’s part. Paullus, however, was opposed to the engagement as it was taking shape. Unlike Varro, he was prudent and cautious, and he believed it was foolish to fight on open ground, despite the Romans’ numerical strength.

Although there is controversy surrounding the truth, the rash Varro is the one who is supposedly in charge of the Roman army the day of the fated battle, somewhat akin to how the much more prudent Aenys is killed, leaving the belligerent Hosteen in charge.

And if the Battle of Cannae is a fair historical reference for the forthcoming battle at the crofter’s village –it’s going to be an absolute bloodbath.

The Late Lord Manderly

It is unclear whether or not Manderly will bring his forces to bear against Stannis, but I find it unlikely. Consider the following:

  • He’s never declared for the Boltons. If you notice, the various messages sent by Ramsay have several seals: Dustin, Umber, and four Ryswells. No Manderly. This is ostensibly because Manderly is so slow to move his men to Barrowton.
  • He leaves via Winterfell’s east gate and the Freys via the main gate (which is to the south I believe).
  • Manderly brought no hostages and is presumably taking his entire force with him, leaving the Boltons no leverage over him.
  • Since Manderly will be separate from the Freys, he could easily ‘languish’ in the snows and later claim his forces became incapable of moving forward.
  • Manderly has Davos secretly hunting for Rickon, with the promise to accept fealty to Stannis if Rickon can be produced as the true Lord of Winterfell. Thus Manderly has incentive not to fight Stannis.
  • If Manderly stalls and lets the others fight, he lets them whittle their own forces down. After all, Manderly did state to Davos that he has the largest force of knights and warships in the north. By letting the Freys lose men in a fight with Stannis he only improves his position.
  • Manderly is also extremely well provisioned for camping in the snows.

In short, Manderly has every opportunity to copy ‘Late Lord’ Frey and play the waiting game.

The Battle of the False Light

At this point it is has been quite convincingly argued that Stannis will engage in a pitched battle with the Freys, most likely decimate them, and seize their baggage train. For a detailed examination of this confrontation from two different perspectives, I highly suggest the following essays:

I believe my essay could be rewritten in light of the grander strategy this post discusses, and maybe one day I’ll get around to that.

The following visual helps explain the plans:

nightlampstrategyNo Endgame in Sight

Without regard to Stannis’s likely victory at the crofter’s village, there’s still no direct suggestion on how Stannis plans to take Winterfell. We either accept that the whole mission has always been ludicrous and risky, or that we’re missing something.

The answer is that we are missing something of course. The answer to that mystery is soon to be revealed, but I think we need just a bit more context.

A Pretext for Suicide

For people coming here from Reddit, I directly linked to this section so that readers aren’t immediately bogged down in a long post. You can backtrack if you like, by starting here I presume you are somewhat familiar with current Stannis theories. In short, this post aims to reveal a heretofore undiscussed method by which Stannis planned to help take Winterfell:

  1. Irrevocable and Redeemable Loyalties
  2. Suicide for Profit

Stannis does not want to crush the military capabilities of the northern lords if it can be avoided. After all, what good is their loyalty if they cannot help him secure his crown?

Irrevocable and Redeemable Loyalties

Stannis knows that all of the northern lords have reason to secretly hate Bolton, all except two: Dustin and Ryswell.

“The Ryswells and Dustins are tied to House Bolton by marriage,” Jon informed him. “These others have lost their lords in the fighting.”

If any of the lords of the north are going to be impossible to sway, it would be Dustin and Ryswell: bound to the Boltons by blood. This is relevant because it gives Stannis a Bolton ally that he can attack with relative impunity. Additionally, the Freys have thrown their lot in with Boltons as well.

Most of the remaining houses need only the right pretext and their loyalties can be changed.

To do so, Stannis needs to achieve just a few requirements:

  1. Free the lords from any hostage situation they are currently in.
    For some lords that means saving a captive of their own house, especially the heir or current lord.
    For others that simply means ensuring that their hostage will not be killed. Greatjon Umber is currently a captive of the Freys, and thus the Umbers would not act unless they were assured that the Greatjon would not suffer for it.
    For almost all the lords, this also means that rescuing Arya from the Boltons is also a requirement.
  2. Render them hateful or at least ambivalent about Bolton.
    This is a case of making the lords less likely to help Boltons if given the choice, or openly attacking them.
  3. Remove the bystander effect.
    One reason several lords might not take action against the Boltons is because there is a gaggle of them all at Winterfell. They are more likely to exhibit herd behavior in such a setting. If the Lords can be coaxed out of Winterfell they are more likely to be sluggish to calls for aid. In other words, it’s a lot easier for Bolton’s allies to ‘fail to aid’ than it is for them to ‘openly revolt’, particularly if they get to make that choice free from peer pressure.

So how to achieve these objectives?

  • Rescue Arya, and optionally rescue other hostages. We already know that Stannis has rescued Arya. This requirement has been met.
  • Get those reluctant Bolton allies out of Winterfell.

Suicide for Profit

As noted before, Stannis seems to imply a certain ‘death wish’, that he will ‘die trying’ to take Winterfell:

“But we will march, and we will free Winterfell … or die in the attempt.”

“It may be that we shall lose this battle,” the king said grimly. “In Braavos you may hear that I am dead. It may even be true. You shall find my sellswords nonetheless.”

According to the linked essays regarding the siege of Winterfell, it is a well-established idea that Stannis might fake his own death and defeat. To what purpose has been thus far unclear.

Now suddenly the picture becomes clearer, it’s because by faking his own death, most of the lords of the north no longer have reason to remain at Winterfell. We don’t know what kind of a delay there is, we don’t know if the pink letter is authentically from Stannis. But in general the lords might march to Castle Black, they might return to their own holdings, etc. After all, how many men does Ramsay need to ‘attack’ Castle Black? In any case, Stannis’s death is cause for an exodus from Winterfell.

Even Roose Bolton might take some or most of his forces back to the Dreadfort.

The benefits of this cannot be overstated. Stannis can dramatically lower the strength at Winterfell simply by convincing them that he has been destroyed. These are ideas that Stannis could probably foresee while at Deepwood Motte.

The big question remains, who might remain at Winterfell. What is the variability on this? Can he influence who stays or goes at Winterfell?

Unknown Allies


  1. A Difference of Intelligence
  2. The Giants and The Bears
  3. The Second Navy of Stannis Baratheon
  4. How Big of a Fleet?
  5. The Utility of Longships

A Difference of Intelligence

First and foremost, let’s compare the intelligence that Jon and Roose have regarding Stannis’s liberation of Deepwood:


Lord Stannis has taken Deepwood Motte from the ironmen and restored it to House Glover. Worse, the mountain clans have joined him, Wull and Norrey and Liddle and the rest…

“Even ruined and broken, Winterfell remains Lady Arya’s home. What better place to wed her, bed her, and stake your claim? That is only half of it, however. We would be fools to march on Stannis. Let Stannis march on us. He is too cautious to come to Barrowton … but he must come to Winterfell. His clansmen will not abandon the daughter of their precious Ned to such as you. Stannis must march or lose them … and being the careful commander that he is, he will summon all his friends and allies when he marches. He will summon Arnolf Karstark.”


And we had other help, unexpected but most welcome, from a daughter of Bear Island. Alysane Mormont, whose men name her the She-Bear, hid fighters inside a gaggle of fishing sloops and took the ironmen unawares where they lay off the strand. Greyjoy’s longships are burned or taken, her crews slain or surrendered. The captains, knights, notable warriors, and others of high birth we shall ransom or make other use of, the rest I mean to hang …

The Giants and the Bears

Can you see the significant difference in revealed Stannis co-conspirators?

stannisalliesMors Umber and the Mormonts are not mentioned by Roose. They appear to be factions that he is completely unaware of.

Isn’t this conspicuous? It would be easy to dismiss this if it wasn’t for the fact that the omission of Mors was quite important to the ‘Arya rescue’ plot.

Wouldn’t that by nature suggest that the Mormonts might be put to some sort of use as well?

Some questions:

  • Firstly, what kind of Mormont force are we talking about?
    A ‘gaggle of fighters’ does not sound like a large band.
  • What happened to them?
    As far as the text is concerned, Alysane Mormont is the only member of this ‘gaggle’ that joined Stannis’s band.
  • Would Stannis leave idle a ‘gaggle’ of fighters that might otherwise be put to use?
    The idea that he just left men behind for no apparent reason is inconsistent with Stannis’s sense for the pragmatic.

The Second Navy of Stannis Baratheon

Put simply, Stannis has captured Greyjoy longships:

She wondered who was in command of her foes. If it were me, I would take the strand and put our longships to the torch before attacking Deepwood. The wolves would not find that easy, though, not without longships of their own. Asha never beached more than half her ships. The other half stood safely off to sea, with orders to raise sail and make for Sea Dragon Point if the northmen took the strand.

“I did. Now I offer you my men, my ships, my wits.” “Your ships are mine, or burnt. Your men … how many are left? Ten? Twelve?”

So Alysane and a ‘gaggle of fighters’ aided Stannis. And they captured Greyjoy longships.

So how many Greyjoy longships did Stannis acquire?

Two, supported by the following observations:

  • Victarion took 93 of the 100 ships in the Iron Fleet:

    He had set sail from the Shields with ninety-three, of the hundred that had once made up the Iron Fleet, a fleet belonging not to a single lord but to the Seastone Chair itself, captained and crewed by men from all the islands.

  • Of the remaining 7, Asha had 4 of them:

    Her lord father had given her thirty longships to capture Deepwood. Four remained, counting her own Black Wind, and one of those belonged to Tris Botley, who had joined her when all her other men were fleeing.

  • At least two of the ships would have been vulnerable to capture:

    Asha never beached more than half her ships.

Just how useful could two Greyjoy longships be?

Incredibly useful, there is absolutely no other naval power on the northwestern coasts of Westeros. Using the passages above, we can see that there are only three (3) longships that remain unaccounted for. However I believe these were associated with the ironborn at Moat Cailin and were destroyed:

The Ryswells and the Dustins had surprised the ironmen on the Fever River and put their longships to the torch.

By all appearances the only seaborne defense against the ironborn would be from the Mallisters, who have longships of their own. However they are being held captive by the Freys and their navy is likely mothballed in order to prevent revolution.

Quite literally these two Greyjoy longships have complete run of everything between Bear Island and the Iron Islands.

Goodbye Horses: Drawing Allies from Winterfell


  1. The Return of the Oakenfist
  2. The Burning of Barrowton
  3. How this Benefits Stannis

The Return of the Oakenfist

With two Greyjoy longships, what could Stannis possibly do? How could they help him?

They can strike at a weak spot in the Bolton campaign, such that it renders Bolton vulnerable.

And how would they do that?

Recall that I showed that the entire west coast of Westeros is quite vulnerable. Thus the captured longships could readily sail into Saltspear and up any of the rivers.

Victarion even points out that Greyjoy longships can go upriver as a specific advantage:

“The plan was good, I grant him,” Victarion said as she knelt beside him. “The Mander is open to us now, as it was of old.” It was a lazy river, wide and slow and treacherous with snags and sandbars. Most seagoing vessels dared not sail beyond Highgarden, but longships with their shallow draughts could navigate as far upstream as Bitterbridge. In ancient days, the ironborn had boldly sailed the river road and plundered all along the Mander and its vassal streams

So the longships could access Barrowton. But to what possible purpose?

To set fire to Barrowton, and draw the Dustins and Ryswells from Winterfell.

Has setting fire to Barrowton been suggested?

“…Barrowton is staunch for Bolton largely because she still holds Ned Stark to blame for her husband’s death.”

“Staunch?” Ramsay seethed. “All she does is spit on me. The day will come when I’ll set her precious wooden town afire. Let her spit on that, see if it puts out the flames.”

Roose made a face, as if the ale he was sipping had suddenly gone sour. “There are times you make me wonder if you truly are my seed. My forebears were many things, but never fools.”

Does Stannis know that Barrowton might be susceptible to such an attack?

The red priestess slid closer to the king. “I saw a town with wooden walls and wooden streets, filled with men. Banners flew above its walls: a moose, a battle-axe, three pine trees, longaxes crossed beneath a crown, a horse’s head with fiery eyes.”

Wouldn’t Roose and the others realize this is a Stannis ploy? No, because the attack would be conducted under the appearance of Greyjoys. After all, the ships look like Greyjoy longships. Additionally, the Dustins and Ryswells have reason to believe they are Greyjoys because they’ve already been dealing with Greyjoy longships:

The Ryswells and the Dustins had surprised the ironmen on the Fever River and put their longships to the torch.

How does this benefit Stannis?

If you consider this in addition to Stannis’s faked death, this draws Bolton’s allies all over the map and away from Winterfell.

Suddenly Stannis is three days away from Winterfell, the Bolton’s most loyal allies have departed to deal with presumed Greyjoys and the other -reluctant Bolton bannermen- are likely afield. When you consider that Arya has already been rescued, the reemergence of Stannis is a huge coup – especially if he can take Winterfell unawares.

A general map of the scenario:


Finally, one question that might lend credence to these ideas: Has Stannis shown any concern for the strength that remains at Winterfell? The answer to this would show that he has a ploy in mind to further reduce that strength.

Stannis Baratheon paced the floor. The tower was a small one, dank and cramped. A few steps brought the king around to Theon. “How many men does Bolton have at Winterfell?”

“Five thousand. Six. More.” He gave the king a ghastly grin, all shattered teeth and splinters. “More than you.”

“How many of those is he like to send against us?”

“No more than half.”

What escapes most readers here is that Stannis is not concerned with the number attacking him… he wants to know how many are left at Winterfell. The notion that he is after that information instead strongly suggests there are moves he’s already got in motion.

“Bolton has blundered,” the king declared. “All he had to do was sit inside his castle whilst we starved. Instead he has sent some portion of his strength forth to give us battle.”

With the statement “he has sent some portion of his strength” Stannis shows that he sees the benefit in whittling away at Bolton’s numerical superiority.

The point here is that Stannis in actuality cares very little about the approaching Freys and much more about how his strategy is chipping away at the Boltons.

I’m Exhausted

This post probably needs some cleanup, but I’m exhausted and need a break from working on it.

5 thoughts on “Goodbye Horses: A Dead King’s Masterstroke

  1. Kuruharan

    A good analysis and the first one I recall seeing that provides a plausible explanation regarding what Stannis hopes to gain from faking his death.

  2. ALVAN

    I enjoyed the post immensely, but there is one slight error. You attributed Theon’s comments under the “ho-hum about the girl” bullet to ADWD when it should be TWOW. Sorry for being anal about it. All the best, and keep up the good work.

  3. Lone Stark State

    So, so impressive! I’ve just come across your essays and am looking forward to reading more. Keep up the excellent work!


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