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«illustration credit 1 illustration credit 2 The World of Ice & Fire is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the ...»

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Whatever the truth, the last man to be called Marsh King was killed by King Rickard Stark (sometimes called the Laughing Wolf in the North, for his good nature), who took the man’s daughter to wife, whereupon the crannogmen bent their knees and accepted the dominion of Winterfell. In the centuries since, the crannogmen have become stout allies of the Starks, under the leadership of the Reeds of Greywater Watch.


After the Conquest and the unification of the Seven Kingdoms, the Starks became Wardens of the North rather than kings, swearing their fealty to the Iron Throne, yet remained supreme within their own domains in all but name. Though Torrhen Stark had given up the ancient crown of the Kings of Winter, his sons were less glad of the Targaryen yoke, and some among them entertained talk of rebelling, and of raising the Stark banner whether Lord Torrhen consented or not.

Whether anti-Targaryen feelings were made worse by Queen Rhaenys Targaryen’s efforts to knit together the new, single realm with marriages between the great houses is left to the reader to consider. That Torrhen Stark’s daughter was wed to the young and ill-fated Lord of the Vale is well-known; it was one of the many peace-binding marriages forged by Rhaenys. But there are letters preserved at the Citadel suggesting that Stark accepted these arrangements only after much protest, and that the bride’s brothers refused to attend the wedding entirely.

Later still, it was said that the Starks were bitter at the Old King and Queen Alysanne for having forced them to carve away the New Gift and give it the Night’s Watch; this may be one reason for why Lord Ellard Stark sided with Corlys Velaryon and Princess Rhaenys at the Great Council of 101 AC.

We have earlier discussed House Stark’s role in the Dance of the Dragons. Let it be added that Lord Cregan Stark reaped many rewards for his loyal support of King Aegon III … even if it was not a royal princess marrying into his family, as had been agreed in the Pact of Ice and Fire made when the doomed prince Jacaerys Velaryon had flown to Winterfell upon his dragon.

Though in these days it is said that Lord Ellard Stark was glad to aid the Night’s Watch with the Gift, and took little convincing, the truth is otherwise. Letters from Lord Stark’s brother to the Citadel, asking the maesters to provide precedents against the forced donation of property, made it plain that the Starks were not eager to do as King Jaehaerys bid. It may be that the Starks feared that, under the control of the Castle Black, the New Gift would inevitably decline—for the Night’s Watch would always look northward and never give much thought to their new tenants to the south. And as it happens, that soon came to pass, and the New Gift is now said to be largely unpopulated thanks to the decline of the Watch and the rising toll taken by raiders from beyond the Wall.

After the Dance of the Dragons, the Starks were more overtly loyal to the Targaryens than previously. Indeed, Lord Cregan Stark’s son and heir fought beneath the Targaryen banner when the Young Dragon sought to conquer Dorne. Rickon Stark fought bravely, his deeds sometimes reported by King Daeron in his Conquest of Dorne, and Rickon’s death outside of Sunspear in one of the final battles was lamented in the North for years to come because of the troubles that dogged the reigns of his half brothers.

In the decades that followed, the North saw the Starks dealing with the rebellion of Skagos, a renewed onslaught of reaving by the ironborn under Dagon Greyjoy, and a wildling invasion led by Raymun Redbeard, the King-Beyond-the-Wall in 226 AC. In each of these, Starks died. Yet the house continued with its fortunes mostly unchanged—likely because of the firm resolve of most Lords of Winterfell not to become embroiled in the intrigues of the southron court. When the Stark line was nearly obliterated by Mad King Aerys after Rhaegar’s abduction of Lyanna, some misguided men laid the blame at the feet of the late Lord Rickard, whose alliances by blood and friendship tied the great houses together and ensured that they would act together in response to the Mad King’s crimes.


The greatest castle of the North is Winterfell, the seat of the Starks since the Dawn Age. Legend says that Brandon the Builder raised Winterfell after the generation-long winter known as the Long Night to become the stronghold of his descendants, the Kings of Winter. As Brandon the Builder is connected with an improbable number of great works (Storm’s End and the Wall, to name but two prominent examples) over a span of numerous lifetimes, the tales have likely turned some ancient king, or a number of different kings of House Stark (for there have been many Brandons in the long reign of that family) into something more legendary.

The castle itself is peculiar in that the Starks did not level the ground when laying down the foundations and walls of the castle. Very likely, this reveals that the castle was built in pieces over the years rather than being planned as a single structure. Some scholars suspect that it was once a complex of linked ringforts, though the centuries have eradicated almost all evidence of this.

Winterfell, with the winter town outside its walls. (illustration credit 96) The outer walls of Winterfell were raised during the last two decades of the reign of King Edrick Snowbeard. Though Edrick is famed for a reign that lasted nearly a century, his rule in his dotage was increasingly erratic. Seeing this, many different factions tried to seize control of his faltering realm. The most obvious threats were from his own numerous—and fractious—descendants, but others took their chances as well, including ironmen, slavers from across the narrow sea, wildlings, and Northern rivals such as the Boltons.

The inner walls, which were once the only defensive walls, are estimated to be some two thousand years old, and perhaps some sections are older still. In later years, a defensive moat was dug around them, then a second wall was raised beyond the moat, giving the castle a formidable defense. The inner walls stand a hundred feet high, the outer walls eighty; any attacker who succeeded in capturing the outer wall would still find defenders on the inner walls loosing spears and stones and arrows down at him.

We can dismiss Mushroom’s claim in his Testimony that the dragon Vermax left a clutch of eggs somewhere in the depths of Winterfell’s crypts, where the waters of the hot springs run close to the walls, while his rider treated with Cregan Stark at the start of the Dance of the Dragons. As Archmaester Gyldayn notes in his fragmentary history, there is no record that Vermax ever laid so much as a single egg, suggesting the dragon was male. The belief that dragons could change sex at need is erroneous, according to Maester Anson’s Truth, rooted in a misunderstanding of the esoteric metaphor that Barth preferred when discussing the higher mysteries.

Within its walls, the castle sprawls across several acres of land, encompassing many freestanding buildings. The oldest of these—a long-abandoned tower, round and squat and covered with gargoyles —has become known as the First Keep. Some take this to mean that it was built by the First Men, but Maester Kennet has definitively proved that it could not have existed before the arrival of the Andals since the First Men and the early Andals raised square towers and keeps. Round towers came sometime later.

Hot springs such as the one beneath Winterfell have been shown to be heated by the furnaces of the world—the same fires that made the Fourteen Flames or the smoking mountain of Dragonstone. Yet the smallfolk of Winterfell and the winter town have been known to claim that the springs are heated by the breath of a dragon that sleeps beneath the castle. This is even more foolish than Mushroom’s claims and need not be given any consideration.

To the trained eye, the architecture of Winterfell is an amalgam of many different eras. And its vastness not only encompasses buildings but open areas as well. In fact, three acres alone are given over to an ancient godswood, where legend tells us Brandon the Builder once prayed to his gods.

Whether this is true or not, the antiquity of the grove cannot be contested. And the godswood no doubt benefits from the hot springs that are contained within it, protecting the trees from the worst of the winter’s chill.

Indeed, the presence of the hot springs—which pepper the land around Winterfell—may be the chief reason why the First Men initially settled there. One can easily imagine the value that a ready source of water—and hot water, at that—would have had in the depths of a Northern winter. In recent centuries, the Starks have raised structures that have made direct use of these springs for the purpose of heating their dwellings.

Castle Black and the Wall. (illustration credit 97)




Unique in the Seven Kingdoms is the Night’s Watch, the sworn brotherhood that has defended the Wall over centuries and millennia, born in the aftermath of the Long Night, the generation-long winter that brought the Others down on the realms of men and nearly put an end to them.

The history of the Night’s Watch is a long one. Tales still tell of the black knights of the Wall and their noble calling. But the Age of Heroes is long done, and the Others have not shown themselves in thousands of years, if indeed they ever existed.

And so, year by year, the Watch has dwindled. Their own records prove that this decline has been in progress even before the age of Aegon the Conqueror and his sisters. Though the black brothers of the Watch still guard the realms of men as nobly as they may, the threats they face no longer come from Others, wights, giants, greenseers, wargs, skinchangers, and other monsters from children’s tales and legend, but rather, barbaric wildlings armed with stone axes and clubs; savages to be sure, but only men, and no match for disciplined warriors.

It was not always so. Whether the legends are true or not, it is plain that the First Men and the children of the forest (and even the giants, if we take the word of the singers) feared something enough that it drove them to begin raising the Wall. And this great construction, as simple as it is, is justly accounted among the wonders of the world. It may be that its earliest foundations were of stone —the maesters differ in this—but now all that can be seen for a distance of a hundred leagues is ice.

Nearby lakes provided the material, which the First Men cut into huge blocks and hauled upon sledges to the Wall, and worked into place one by one. Now, thousands of years later, the Wall stands more than seven hundred feet tall at its highest point (though its height varies considerably over the hundred leagues of its length, as it follows the contours of the land).

Legend has it that the giants helped raise the Wall, using their great strength to wrestle the blocks of ice into place. There may be some truth to this though the stories make the giants out to be far larger and more powerful than they truly were. These same legends also say that the children of the forest—who did not themselves build walls of either ice or stone— would contribute their magic to the construction. But the legends, as always, are of dubious value.

Beneath the shadow of that wall of ice, the Night’s Watch raised nineteen strongholds—though they are unlike any other castles in the Seven Kingdoms, for they have no curtain walls or other defensive fortifications to protect them (the Wall itself being more than ample against any threat coming from the north, and the Watch insists it has no foes to the south).

The greatest and oldest of these is the Nightfort, which has been abandoned for the past two hundred years; as the Watch shrunk, its size made it too large and too costly to maintain. Maesters who served at the Nightfort whilst it was still in use made it plain that the castle had been expanded upon many times over the centuries and that little remained of its original structure save for some of the deepest vaults chiseled out of the rock beneath the castle’s feet.

Yet over the thousands of years of its existence as the chief seat of the Watch, the Nightfort has accrued many legends of its own, some of which have been recounted in Archmaester Harmune’s Watchers on the Wall. The oldest of these tales concern the legendary Night’s King, the thirteenth Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, who was alleged to have bedded a sorceress pale as a corpse and declared himself a king. For thirteen years the Night’s King and his “corpse queen” ruled together, before King of Winter, Brandon the Breaker, (in alliance, it is said, with the King-Beyondthe-Wall, Joramun) brought them down. Thereafter, he obliterated the Night’s King’s very name from memory.

In the Citadel, the archmaesters largely dismiss these tales—though some allow that there may have been a Lord Commander who attempted to carve out a kingdom for himself in the earliest days of the Watch. Some suggest that perhaps the corpse queen was a woman of the Barrowlands, a daughter of the Barrow King who was then a power in his own right, and oft associated with graves. The Night’s King has been said to have been variously a Bolton, a Woodfoot, an Umber, a Flint, a Norrey, or even a Stark, depending on where the tale is told. Like all tales, it takes on the attributes that make it most appealing to those who tell it.

–  –  –

The Night’s Watch, which might well be called the first militant order in the Seven Kingdoms (for the first duty of all its members is to defend the Wall, and all are trained at arms to this end), has

divided its sworn brothers into three groups:

1) the stewards, who supply the Watch with food, clothing, and all the other things they need to make war,

2) the builders, who tend to the Wall and the castles,

3) the rangers, who venture into the wilds beyond to make war upon the wildlings.

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