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Leading them are the senior officers of the Watch, the chief of whom is the Lord Commander. He himself is appointed by election: the men of the Watch, each and every one—from the unlettered former poachers to the scions of the great houses—will cast a vote for the man he believes should lead them. Once one man has the greater part of the votes, he will lead the Watch until his death. It is a custom that has largely served the Watch well, and efforts to subvert it (as when Lord Commander Runcel Hightower attempted to leave the Watch to his bastard son some five hundred years ago) have never lasted.
Sadly, the most important truth about the Night’s Watch today is its decline. It may once have served a great purpose. But if the Others ever existed, they have not been seen in thousands of years and are of no threat to men. It is the wildlings beyond the Wall who are the danger the Night’s Watch now face. Yet only when there are kings-beyond-the-Wall have the wildlings ever truly presented a threat to the realms of men.
The vast expense in sustaining the Wall and the men who man it has become increasingly intolerable. Only three of the castles of the Night’s Watch are now manned, and the order is a tenth of the size that it was when Aegon and his sisters landed, yet even at this size, the Watch remains a burden.
Some argue that the Wall serves as a useful way of ridding the realm of murderers, rapers, poachers, and their ilk, whilst others question the wisdom of putting weapons in the hands of such and training them in the arts of war. Wildling raids may rightly be considered more of a nuisance than a menace; many wise men suggest that they might be better dealt with by allowing the lords of the North to extend their rule beyond the Wall so that they can drive the wildlings back.
Only the fact that the Northmen themselves greatly honor the Watch has kept it functioning, and a great part of the food that keeps the black brothers of Castle Black, the Shadow Tower, and Eastwatch-by-the-Sea from starving comes not from the Gift but from the yearly gifts these Northern lords deliver to the Wall in token of their support.
In the lands beyond the Wall live the diverse people—all descended from the First Men—that we of the more civilized south name wildlings.
This is not a term they use themselves. The largest and most numerous of the various peoples beyond the Wall named themselves the free folk, in their belief that their savage customs allow them lives of greater freedom than the kneelers of the south. And it is true that they live with neither lords nor kings and need bow to neither man nor priest, regardless of their birth or blood or station.
But they also live meanly, and are not free from starvation, from the extremities of cold, from barbaric warfare, or from the depredations of their own kind. The lawlessness beyond the Wall is nothing to envy, as any man who has seen wildlings can attest. (And many have so attested, in a number of works based on accounts from the rangers of the Night’s Watch). Their pride in their poverty, in their stone axes and wicker-wood shields, and in their flea-infested pelts, is part of the reason they are set apart from the people in the Seven Kingdoms.
The countless tribes and clans of the free folk remain worshippers of the old gods of the First Men and children of the forest, the gods of the weirwood trees (some accounts say that there are those who worship different gods: dark gods beneath the ground in the Frostfangs, gods of snow and ice on the Frozen Shore, or crab gods at Storrold’s Point, but such has never been reliably confirmed).
The wildling raiders trouble the realm largely for iron and steel—things they lack the skill to make themselves. Many raiders are armed with weapons of wood and stone, even of horn in some cases. Some carry bronze axes and knives, but even these are considered valuable. The famous war leaders amongst them often sport stolen steel, sometimes taken from rangers of the Watch whom they have killed.
Rangers of the Night’s Watch speak of still stranger peoples who dwell in the more distant corners of the lands beyond the Wall, of bronze-clad warriors from a hidden vale far to the north, and Hornfoots who go barefoot even over ice and snow. We know of the wild people of the Frozen Shore who live in huts of ice and ride sleds pulled by hounds. There are half a dozen tribes who make their homes in caverns, and rumors tell of cannibals in the upper reaches of the icy rivers beyond the Wall.
But few rangers have penetrated more than half a hundred leagues into the haunted forest, and doubtless there are more kinds of wildlings than even they can imagine.
A wildling raider. (illustration credit 99) The threat posed to the realm by these savage peoples can safely be discounted, save for the times, once in a great while, when they united beneath the leadership of a king-beyond-the-Wall. Though many wildling raiders and war chiefs have aspired to this title, few have ever achieved it. None of the wildlings who have risen up to become King-Beyond-the-Wall have done aught to build a true kingdom or care for their people; in truth, such men are warlords, not monarchs, and though elsewise much different one from the other, each has led his peoples against the Wall, in hopes of breaching it and conquering the Seven Kingdoms to the south.
The first King-Beyond-the-Wall, according to legend, was Joramun, who claimed to have a horn that would bring down the Wall when it woke “the giants from the earth.” (That the Wall still stands says something of his claim, and perhaps even of his existence.) Hardhome was once the only settlement approaching a town in the lands beyond the Wall, sheltered on Storrold’s Point and commanding a deepwater harbor. But six hundred years ago, it was burned and its people destroyed, though the Watch cannot say for a certainty what happened. Some say that cannibals from Skagos fell on them, others that slavers from across the narrow sea were at fault. The strangest stories, from a ship of the Watch sent to investigate, tell of hideous screams echoing down from the cliffs above Hardhome, where no living man or woman could be found. A most fascinating account of Hardhome can be found in Maester Wyllis’s Hardhome: An Account of Three Years Spent Beyond-the-Wall among Savages, Raiders, and Woods-witches. Wyllis journeyed to Hardhome on a Pentoshi trader and established himself there as a healer and counselor so that he might write of their customs. He was given the protection of Gorm the Wolf—a chieftain who shared control of Hardhome with three other chiefs. When Gorm was murdered in a drunken brawl, however, Wyllis found himself in mortal danger and made his way back to Oldtown. There he set down his account, only to vanish the year after the illuminations were done. It was said in the Citadel that he was last seen at the docks, looking for a ship that would take him to Eastwatch-by-the-Sea.
The brothers Gendel and Gorne were joint kings three thousand years ago. Leading their host down beneath the earth into a labyrinth of twisting subterranean caverns, they passed beneath the Wall unseen to attack the North. Gorne slew the Stark king in battle, then was killed in turn by the king’s heir, and Gendel and his remaining wildlings fled back to their caverns, never to been seen again.
A wildling host gathering at the Wall. (illustration credit 100) The Horned Lord would follow them, a thousand years after (or perhaps two). His name is lost to history, but he was said to have used sorcery to pass the Wall. After him, centuries later, came Bael the Bard, whose songs are still sung beyond the Wall … but there are questions as to whether he truly existed or not. The wildlings say he did and credit many songs to his name, but the old chronicles of Winterfell say nothing of him. Whether this was due to the defeats and humiliations he was said to have visited upon them (including, according to one improbable story, deflowering a Stark maid and getting her with child) or because he never existed, we cannot truly say.
Among the wildlings, it is said that Gendel and his people became lost and trapped in the caverns and still wander there today. Among the histories of the rangers, however, it is said that Gendel was slain as well, and that only a handful of his followers lived to flee back into the ground.
The last King-Beyond-the-Wall to cross the Wall was Raymun Redbeard, who brought the wildlings together in 212 or 213 AC. It was not until 226 AC that he and the wildlings would breach the Wall by climbing in their hundreds and thousands up the slick ice and down the other side.
Raymun’s host numbered in the thousands, by all accounts, and they fought their way as far south as Long Lake. There, Lord Willam Stark and the Drunken Giant, Lord Harmond of House Umber, brought their armies against them. With two hosts surrounding him, and the lake to his back, Redbeard fought and died, but not before slaying Lord Willam.
When the Night’s Watch appeared at last, led by its Lord Commander Jack Musgood (called Jolly Jack Musgood before the invasion, and Sleepy Jack Musgood forever after), the battle was done and the angry Artos Stark (the late Lord Willam’s brother, accounted the most fearsome warrior of his age) gave the black brothers the duty of burying the dead. This task, at the least, they performed admirably.
illustration credit 101 R IVERLANDS THE MUCH HISTORY—RIFE with both glory and tragedy—has been made in the lands watered by the river Trident and its three great vassal streams.
Stretching from the Neck to the banks of the Blackwater, and east to the borders of the Vale, the riverlands are the beating heart of Westeros. No other land in the Seven Kingdoms has seen so many battles, nor so many petty kings and royal houses rising and falling. The causes of this are clear. Rich and fertile, the riverlands border on every other realm in the Seven Kingdoms save Dorne, yet have few natural boundaries to deter invasion. The waters of the Trident make the lands ripe for settlement, farming, and conquest, whilst the river’s three branches stimulate trade and travel during peacetime, and serve as both roads and barriers in times of war.
The importance of the Trident to the region was never made clearer then when King Harwyn Hoare, the grandfather of Harren the Black, fought over the riverlands with the Storm King Arrec. The ironborn reavers were able to achieve dominance on the rivers and use them as a means to transport forces swiftly between far-flung strongholds and battlefields. The Storm King suffered his worst defeat at the crossing of the Blue Fork near Fairmarket, where the longships proved decisive in allowing the ironborn to seize the crossing despite Arrec’s superior numbers.
The three branches of the Trident give the riverlands their name: the Red Fork, colored by the mud and silt that tumbles down from the western mountains; the Green Fork, whose mossy waters emerge from the swamps of the Neck; and the Blue Fork, named for the purity of its sparkling, spring-fed flow. Their wide waters are the roads by which goods pass through the riverlands, and it is not unknown to see lines of poleboats stretching a mile or more. There has never been a city in the riverlands, strange as that might seem (though large market towns are common), likely because of the fractious history of the region and a tendency for the kings of the past to refuse the charters that might have given some Saltpans or Lord Harroway’s Town or Fairmarket leave to expand.
During the long centuries when the First Men reigned supreme in Westeros, countless petty kingdoms rose and fell in the riverlands. Their histories, entwined and embroidered with myth and song, are largely forgotten, save for the names of a few legendary kings and heroes whose deeds are recorded on weathered stones in runes whose meanings are even now disputed at the Citadel. Thus, whilst singers and storytellers may regale us with colorful tales of Artos the Strong, Florian the Fool, Nine-Finger Jack, Sharra the Witch Queen, and the Green King of the Gods Eye, the very existence of such personages must be questioned by the serious scholar.
The true history of the riverlands begins with the coming of the Andals. After crossing the narrow sea and sweeping over the Vale, these conquerors from the east moved to make it their own, sailing their longships up the Trident and its three great branches. In those days, it seems the Andals fought in bands behind chieftains who the later septons would name kings. Piece by piece, they encroached upon the many petty kings whose realms the rivers watered.
Songs speak to us through the years of the Fall of Maidenpool and the death of its boy king, Florian the Brave, Fifth of That Name; of the Widow’s Ford, where three sons of Lord Darry held back the Andal warlord V orian Vypren and his knights for a day and a night, slaying hundreds before they fell themselves; of the night in the White Wood, where supposedly the children of the forest emerged from beneath a hollow hill to send hundreds of wolves against an Andal camp, tearing hundreds of men apart beneath the light of a crescent moon; of the great Battle of Bitter River, where the Brackens of Stone Hedge and the Blackwoods of Raventree Hall made common cause against the invaders, only to be shattered by the charge of 777 Andal knights and seven septons, bearing the seven-pointed star of the Faith upon their shields.
The seven-pointed star went everywhere the Andals went, borne before them on shields and banners, embroidered on their surcoats, sometimes incised into their very flesh. In their zeal for the Seven, the conquerors looked upon the old gods of the First Men and the children of the forest as little more than demons, and fell upon the weirwood groves sacred to them with steel and fire, destroying the great white trees wherever they found them and hacking out their carved faces.