The Dark Fortress


In A Page from History, I present an exhaustive theory of Stannis’s northern campaign. In particular, I argue in favor of a particular key component of the king’s strategy—a false flag attack on the Dreadfort.

Consider the superficial appearance of Stannis’s armies and campaign by the end of A Dance with Dragons, even if the Night Lamp theory proves largely correct. We are still left in a nasty predicament: Stannis may win at the crofter’s village, yet he is still faced with an impossible task:

Stannis and his starving army cannot hope to defeat Roose Bolton and his allies:

Not only do Roose’s men outnumber his own, but Bolton’s are holding fortified position from within the walls of Winterfell. Stannis holds virtually no chance of defeating Roose Bolton in siege combat, certainly not before he armies are destroyed through starvation or exposure.

It seems only reasonable to wonder if Stannis anticipated this possibility. If the king did, we can then wonder if he might have hatched some scheme that would change the situation in his favor. Stannis is well known for his caution—he would consider various contingencies and establish alternate plans.

NOTE: This may sound presumptuous, but I believe it’s unreasonable to think that Stannis is anything less than comprehensive in his strategic planning.

So then, the big question looms:

  • ?
  • Just how does Stannis expect to take Winterfell?

I find the answer to be breathtakingly simple.

Stannis is going to seize the Dreadfort while the Boltons are in Winterfell.

Before we even consider such a claim, I must acknowledge that it immediately raises two obvious questions:

  • ?
  • Why on earth would Stannis want to take the Dreadfort?

  • ?
  • How could he possibly do this?

Remember that this essay is largely designed to support the larger strategy argued in A Page from History. To that end, this essay provides a detailed answer to the first question: I explain the various motives that would drive Stannis to pursue the Dreadfort.

The latter question is a subject for other essays in the The Mannifesto, and are introduced in later sections of A Page from History’s overview of Stannis’s campaign.

*   *   *

  • ?
  • So… why would Stannis want to take the Dreadfort?

There are three main reasons which make it the most prominent of Stannis’s choices.

  1. The Dreadfort is one of the most well-provisioned sites in the north—an important source of supply in the face of the oncoming winter.

  2. Through the movement of troops in the north, the Dreadfort has been left exposed—vulnerable to surprise attack.

  3. The Dreadfort represents one of the only ways to goad Roose Bolton himself into pitched combat.


  1. A Source of Supply. The status of provisions throughout the north, with an emphasis of the Dreadfort.
  2. A Castle Weakly Held. Despite the way A Dance for Dragons played out, the Dreadfort remained dangerously undermanned.
  3. Drawing Out the Leech. The only way to goad Roose Bolton into sticking his neck out.
  4. Conclusion.

<table of contents>

*   *   *


d50-asoiaf-074-franz_miklis-the_dreadfortOne of the major issues that permeates all of A Dance with Dragons is provisions, best encapsulated with the following question:

  • ?
  • Does each army and lord have enough provisions to survive the winter?

The answer varies from lord to lord, some are facing certain doom and others are well-stocked.

The Need for Provisions

The concern for supplies is not lost on Stannis (or Mance). Indeed, you must assume that he understands the basic principle that an army marches on its stomach, in the words of Napoleon.

If either man recognizes the need for adequate supply, then how do they plan on ensuring the survival of their men, the wildlings and possibly even the Night’s Watch?

The answer to this question forms the central focus of Stannis’s endgame in the north, the events that will rally the North to his cause:

Stannis will capture a well-provisioned location.

There is only one such location available to Stannis that would service this need. Thus it is predictable that he would have designs to capture it:

Stannis will capture the Dreadfort for its provisions.

*   *   *

Feast or Famine

When discussing concerns for supplies, the best place to start is with a review of the provisions associated with each lord in the north.

In general, A Dance with Dragons tends not to describe the amount of provisions each lord possesses. In the few cases when a lord’s provision are described, it is often in extremes: a lord being either ‘well-provisioned’ or ‘totally screwed’.

In an abstract sense, this creates a hierarchy of three levels describing the status of provisions among lords:

  • Well-provisioned.
    The books specifically mentioned that these lords have superior amounts of provisions, enough to sustain armies and/or endure harsh seasons.
  • Neutral.
    No description of provisions was provided for these lords. This suggests that we cannot assume either extreme for these houses.
  • Totally Screwed.
    The books have pointedly mentioned that these lords have insufficient supplies.

We can then sort each of the northern lords and/or their armies into these abstract categories:

  • Well-provisioned
    • House Bolton / The Dreadfort
    • House Manderly / White Harbor
  • Screwed
    • Stannis’s Army
    • The Night’s Watch
    • Winterfell
    • House Stout

Any house not mentioned can be assumed to be neutral with regards to its provisions.

Notice that several of the screwed houses/locations have implicit allegiances to Stannis, and are strategically valuable. Even if he succeeds in taking Winterfell he will still need provisions. He needs them to endure.

*   *   *

A Lack of Interest in Provisions

The purpose of the above exercise was to illustrate n:

  • ?
  • How does a lord improve their level of supply?

The books have stated that the harvest is over, and many lords were unable to reap all their crops. Supplies cannot be improved through agrarian means. With that option unavailable, only two remain:

  • Borrow or purchase provisions.
  • Seize provisions.

In A Dance with Dragons and The Winds of Winter, we see that both Stannis and Jon Snow borrow from the Iron Bank of Braavos.

Jon sought to use the monies to purchase provisions. However, Stannis’s only purpose for the money was to procure mercenaries. It’s interesting that Stannis and his men are presently starving in the wilderness and yet he decides that mercenaries are more important to him than even food.

Now you could attribute this disregard for provisions to be stupidity or obsession beyond reason. However, that is inconsistent with the very intelligent, very sane king we see in Theon’s sample chapter from The Winds of Winter.

Thus, his apparent lack of concern for buying provisions suggests a confidence in finding them elsewhere. And as I pointed out, if he does not borrow or buy provisions he must seize them instead.

*   *   *

Seizing Provisions in Lieu of Buying Them

In the absence of buying provisions, Stannis must seize them.

  • ?
  • Can Stannis just seize anyone’s provisions? What are the repercussions?

The answer to the first question is clear—Stannis cannot just seize anyone’s provisions. Seizing goods from any of the lesser-provisioned sites seems like a sure ticket to dooming whatever community he pillages. Doing anything of the sort would threaten the loyalty of his northmen.

Furthermore, it seems entirely reasonable that Stannis can only adequately resupply if he seizes the assets from one of the well-provisioned sites.

The remaining conclusion is clear: Stannis needs a well-provisioned site that he can attack with impunity.

Recalling that Stannis needs to minimize northern casualties in order to thereafter sway bannermen to his cause, it seems unlikely that he would target Manderly. It also poses the hazard of leaving the Boltons to his rear, a foolish risk.

He can only attack a site that the northmen would not object to.

Thus we arrive at the conclusion:

The Dreadfort is the only politically viable place for Stannis to find vital, necessary provisions.

*   *   *

A Bastard’s Disclosure

In order for us to believe that Stannis’s motives against the Dreadfort would include its provisions, we have to address one question:

  • ?
  • How does Stannis know about the status of provisions at the Dreadfort?

Jon Snow provided Stannis with an abundance of information that helped his overall strategy. One such morsel was the status of provisions in the Dreadfort:

“There are risks and risks, Ser Richard. This one … it is too much, too soon, too far away. I know the Dreadfort. It is a strong castle, all of stone, with thick walls and massive towers. With winter coming you will find it well provisioned. Centuries ago, House Bolton rose up against the King in the North, and Harlon Stark laid siege to the Dreadfort. It took him two years to starve them out. To have any hope of taking the castle, Your Grace would need siege engines, towers, battering rams …”


*   *   *

So stealing the Dreadfort for it’s harvest makes a great deal of sense. Obviously stealing it from the Boltons makes sense for other reasons.

However, this is far from the most important reason to take the Dreadfort.

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*   *   *


madnessmarch - CopyIf you’ve read the first three phases of Stannis’s strategy—as proposed in A Page from History, then you know that I believe in the following:

Stannis fakes his death and defeat, despite achieving a crushing victory at the crofter’s village. Subsequently, Stannis marches his armies in secret to Winterfell, to lurk outside its gates.

Irrespective of these claims, the obstacle remains: Stannis still has the impossible task of taking Winterfell. This leads to the natural conclusion:

Stannis plans to subvert the defense of Winterfell using a tactic based on guile and/or maneuver.

Let us consider the hypothetical scenario: some secret force captures the Dreadfort whilst the Boltons linger at Winterfell.

What Would Bolton Do?

Ask yourself:

  • ?
  • With Stannis dead, what would Roose Bolton do if he heard that the Dreadfort had been taken from him?

Common sense says that he must retake the castle. Particularly since its one of the only remaining ‘well-provisioned’ locations.

Considering that this would involve besieging his own castle, you’d think he’d take his army. How many would that be?

4,000 – Remainder of Robb’s army, mostly Dreadfort men (ADWD Reek II – “Twenty thousand swords and spears had gone off to war with Robb, or near enough to make no matter, but only two in ten were coming back, and most of those were Dreadfort men.”)


In fact, let’s say that the Boltons reverse what they did in A Dance with Dragons; they leave a garrison at Winterfell since Stannis is dead and take the remainder in an effort to retake the Dreadfort.

*   *   *

Sneaking in the Front Door

There is a genius cleverness to this plan:

If the Boltons need to retake the Dreadfort, they will take their army with them.

With Stannis faking his death and right outside Winterfell, this leaves him with a ripe opportunity to sneakily seize the castle.

Once you see it, once you think about this idea, it’s unshakeable in its “rightness”:

  • It’s the only plausible explanation for how Stannis planned to take a castle occupied by over five thousand men. Particularly when you account for Stannis’s own dwindling, divided army. Remember the point I made in Suicidal Tendencies: taking Winterfell does not necessarily mean defeating the Boltons.
  • It’s the only viable explanation for how he planned to take a castle quickly enough as to not entirely perish in the wilderness.

*   *   *

That Vainglorious Book

Another factor that enables such a genius ploy is Stannis’s very presence:

By merely posing a threat to Winterfell, Stannis effectively ‘pinned’ the Boltons at Winterfell. In doing so he allowed for another force to come in and ransack their backsides.

“A bold claim”, some might say. “You would have expected some foreshadowing or something”, others might argue.

Indeed, there was:

“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. “These mountain lords will not hinder my passage?”


Stannis divulges his opinion on Daeron in detail. He points out that Daeron’s presence in the Prince’s Pass tied up the Dornish. Specifically he’s saying that because Daeron tied up the Dornish in this manner, it is what enabled Oakenfist to nail them from behind.

Stannis’s interpretation of Daeron’s conquest betrays the exact principal that underlies his entire strategy for the north.

Supporting this allegation is the fact that Stannis’s opinion regarding Daeron emerges at the very end of the council in which the king had been forming his very strategy against the Boltons. One might even think that Stannis would not have realized this point if Jon had not blurted out his own opinion on Daeron first.

*   *   *

Between the opportunity for vital provisions and the huge strategic implications: it seems undeniable that capturing the Dreadfort would be a part of any comprehensive plan Stannis may have had. Once you see the benefits, it seems ludicrous that Stannis would pass up the opportunity. You don’t even need to like any other element of the Mannifesto to see this.

However, there is an unspoken premise to all of this:

The Boltons could not know about any effort to take the Dreadfort.

If they knew about any such possibility, they would not have allowed the castle to be put at such risk.

This means that any attempt to take the Dreadfort would have needed to satisfy two  requirements:

The mission to take the Dreadfort must be a secret mission: there must be no way for the Boltons to learn of it.

The mission to take the Dreadfort must not be conducted by anyone in Stannis’s army.

This latter point bears some small measure of explaining: Stannis must always be on-guard for traitors amid his army or spies in the surrounding territories.

Had Stannis left any significant component of his military at Castle Black, it risks costing Stannis the element of surprise if he attacks the Dreadfort.

This is why Stannis needed to leverage the wildlings to conduct the attack: surprise is almost guaranteed since nobody expects the wildling inquisition.

In any case, the idea that Stannis still intends to take the Dreadfort lends new irony to the following:

“The Dreadfort will be the proof of that.”

“Despite the counsel of the great Lord Snow? Aye. Horpe and Massey may be ambitious, but they are not wrong. I dare not sit idle whilst Roose Bolton’s star waxes and mine wanes. I must strike and show the north that I am still a man to fear.”


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*   *   *


blake-catherine-lord-leechThere is a final benefit from attacking the Dreadfort, somewhat related to the previous point:

Attacking the Dreadfort is perhaps the only likely way to ensure that Roose Bolton himself departs from Winterfell.

Roose Bolton is infamous for throwing his bannermen into harm’s way. It’s perhaps his signature strategy, and perhaps in this way it is also his weakness.

Here’s an exercise for you:

Imagine as many varied ways that Stannis might scheme to defeat Bolton or take Winterfell.

  • ?
  • Can you think of any other method that would unequivocally coerce Roose Bolton to leave the comfort and security of the castle?

The Dreadfort is unique amongst targets as it pertains to Roose Bolton:

  • It is the very seat of his power,
  • The source of his winter provisions,
  • And the home to all of his soldiers.

If Stannis wants to truly defeat Roose Bolton in combat, with any sort of efficiency greater than a prolonged siege, seizing the Dreadfort is the only seemly option.

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*   *   *


This relatively simple essay only had one goal: to clearly show that there are many reasons for Stannis to have a secret interest in the Dreadfort.

The importance of these facts are left to later essays in The Mannifesto. You can either plunge forward via the main Table of Contents (or pop-up menu at the top of the site), or you can return to A Page from History and continue on with my overview of Stannis’s strategy.

The latter theory regarding the wildlings is something I hope to explore in Volume IV. I think it is compelling, but far less likely to be something concocted entirely by Stannis.

<table of contents>

<the mannifesto>

*   *   *

10 thoughts on “The Dark Fortress

  1. Anne Onie Moss

    There’s just one problem with this: Jon doesn’t know the Dreadfort.

    The description he gives is vague, general, hardly indicative of the kind of detailed knowledge necessary to subvert its defences effectively. Both Theon and Jon Connington had spent years in Winterfell and Griffin’s Roost respectively, living there with full freedom to explore the layout. While he might have visited Dreadfort at some point with Ned, a brief visit would not give him the tactical information a plan involving a mere 30 warriors requires, and no more knowledge than any number of people would have.
    Your analysis of the actions of Melisandre, Stannis and Mance seems sound but the motive is missing. It’s not for the Dreadfort.

    1. cantuse Post author

      You critique of using Jon against the Dreadfort “because of his knowledge” is appreciated. I think readers should keep it in mind and draw their own opinions. There are additional reasons for Jon’s utility against the Dreadfort that have either arisen in later research or that should have been raised as well when I originally wrote this piece: particularly the fact that Jon as an apparent figurehead poses a greater symbolic threat to the Boltons. It’s late and I’m rather stupid on turkey tryptophans.

      There is a vast number of climbing details I have yet to have found a ‘home’ for in the essays that provide more context for the seeming absurdity of the ‘thirty man force’.

      I do believe that the case for Stannis striking at the Dreadfort is still entirely valid: he needs the supplies and a valid way to lure the Boltons from Winterfell.

      Anyways, thanks for reading!

    2. Stargaryen

      My only argument to that is most battle commanders tend to know a lot of information about each and every castle. They are able to explain it based on stories passed down from generation to generation. Some of these castles are thousands of years old that have tens of classical Westerosi stories passed down from generation to generation about great sieges or when these castles were built so on and so forth. Yes, most if not all of these people have probably never seen the dreadfort but stories passed down will help with preparation. That is one reason why battles never go perfectly, sometimes you don’t have all the information.

      1. cantuse Post author

        Keep in mind this poster’s comment was made prior to a *massive* revision of this essay. His/Her opinion is made much less relevant because the essay has all but eliminated the dependency upon Jon’s “knowledge” of the Dreadfort.

        But given that Stannis “knows the strength of every house in Westeros” (Prologue – ACOK), I wouldn’t be surprised if he knew some of the castles as well.

  2. Ser Hodor

    one small addition to the States of Provisions: Alys Karstark mentions in ADWD that Karhold isn’t fully provisioned either due to all the young men being at war during harvest. BTW I very much enjoy your essays

    1. OnionKing

      Just had the same thought after reading this. Tormund was with Jon, when Jon read it. And Tormund didn’t buy it for a second… could be it was the sign to attack…very nice

    2. Stargaryen

      Fantastic idea – which would explain why Mel wanted Jon to cancel the ranging to Hardhome. She would get notified by the letter and that would be the time to send wildlings and rest of kings/queens men to attack dreadfort.

  3. stannerman

    Sure, let’s say Stannis fakes his own defeat and death and wants to attack the Dreadfort. Where will he find the food? The baggage train of the Freys?

    1. cantuse Post author

      In recent years I’ve kinda backed off of the idea of a major assault at the Dreadfort. I still think he could send Theon and company in a surprise attack. However, I’ve been largely pulled into the direction of a wildling invasion being the best way to get the Bolton ‘coalition’ to leave Winterfell.

      As for the food, he of course does get the Frey baggage train, but that does seem like it wouldn’t last indefinitely. This makes me wonder about the massive food supply that Manderly brought (mentioned in Reek III).


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