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All these differences, Archmaester Haereg asserts in his History of the Ironborn, are rooted in religion. These cold, wet, windswept islands were never well forested, and their thin soil did not support the growth of weirwoods. No giants ever made their homes here, nor did the children of the forest walk what woods there were. The old gods worshipped by these elder races were likewise absent. And though the Andals did reach the islands eventually, their Faith never took root here either, for another god had come before the Seven: the Drowned God, creator of the seas and father of the ironborn.
The Drowned God has no temples, no holy books, no idols carved in his likeness, but he has priests aplenty. Since long before recorded history these itinerant holy men have infested the Iron Islands, preaching his word and denouncing all other gods and those who follow them. Ill clad, unkempt, oft barefoot, the priests of the Drowned God have no permanent abode but wander the islands as they will, seldom straying far from the sea. Most are illiterate; theirs is an oral tradition, and younger priests learn the prayers and rituals from the elder. Wherever they might wander, lords and peasants are obliged to give them food and shelter in the name of the Drowned God. Some priests eat only fish. Most do not bathe, save in the sea itself. Men from other lands often think them mad, and so they may appear, but it cannot be denied that they wield great power.
Though most ironborn have naught but scorn for the Seven of the south and the old gods of the North, they do recognize a second deity. In their theology, the Drowned God is opposed by the Storm God, a malignant deity who dwells in the sky and hates men and all their works. He sends cruel winds, lashing rains, and the thunder and lightning that bespeak his endless wroth.
Some say that the Iron Islands are named for the ore that is found there in such abundance, but the ironborn themselves insist that the name derives from their nature, for they are a hard people, as unbending as their god. Mapmakers tell us that there are thirty-one Iron Islands in the main grouping off Ironman’s Bay west of the Cape of Eagles, and thirteen more clustered around the Lonely Light, far out in the vastness of the Sunset Sea. The major islands of the chain number seven: Old Wyk, Great Wyk, Pyke, Harlaw, Saltcliffe, Blacktyde, and Orkmont.
The Grey King upon his throne made from Nagga’s jaws. (illustration credit 116) Harlaw is the most populous of the isles, Great Wyk the largest and the richest in ore, and Old Wyk the holiest, the place where the kings of salt and rock gathered in the Grey King’s Hall of old to choose who would reign over them. Rugged, mountainous Orkmont was home to the Iron Kings of House Greyiron in centuries gone by. Pyke boasts Lordsport, the largest town in the islands, and is the seat of House Greyjoy, rulers over the islands since Aegon’s Conquest. Blacktyde and Saltcliffe are less notable. The tower keeps of lesser lords stand on some of the smaller islets, beside miniscule fishing villages. Others are used for the grazing of sheep, while many more remain uninhabited.
A secondary island grouping lies eight days’ sail to the northwest in the Sunset Sea. There, seals and sea lions make their rookeries on windswept rocks too small to support even a single household.
On the largest rock stands the keep of House Farwynd, named the Lonely Light for the beacon that blazes atop its roof day and night. Queer things are said of the Farwynds and the smallfolk they rule.
Some say they lie with seals to bring forth half-human children, whilst others whisper that they are skinchangers who can take the forms of sea lions, walrus, even spotted whales, the wolves of the western seas.
Strange tales like this are common at the edges of the world, however, and the Lonely Light stands farthest west of all the lands known to us. Many a bold mariner has sailed beyond the light of its beacon over the centuries, seeking the fabled paradise said to lie over the horizon, but the sailors who return (many do not) speak only of boundless grey oceans stretching on and on forever.
Such riches as the Iron Islands possess lie under the hills of Great Wyk, Harlaw, and Orkmont, where lead, tin, and iron can be found in abundance. These ores are the chief export of the islands.
There are many fine metalworkers amongst the ironborn, as might be expected; the forges of Lordsport produce swords, axes, ringmail, and plate second to none.
The soil of the Iron Islands is thin and stony, more suitable for the grazing of goats than the raising of crops. The ironborn would surely suffer famine every winter but for the endless bounty of the sea and the fisherfolk who reap it.
The waters of Ironman’s Bay are home to great schools of cod, black cod, monkfish, skate, icefish, sardines, and mackerel. Crabs and lobsters are found along the shores of all the islands, and west of Great Wyk swordfish, seals, and whales roam the Sunset Sea. Archmaester Hake, born and raised on Harlaw, estimates that seven of every ten families on the Iron Islands are fisherfolk. However mean and poor these men might be on land, upon the sea they are their own masters. “The man who owns a boat need never be a thrall,” Hake writes, “for every captain is a king upon the deck of his own ship.” It is their catch that feeds the islands.
Yet even more than the fisherman, ironborn esteem their reavers. “Wolves of the sea,” the men of the westerlands and riverlands named them in days of yore, and rightly. Like wolves, they oft hunted in packs, crossing stormy seas in their swift longships and descending on peaceful villages and towns up and down the shores of the Sunset Sea to raid, rob, and rape. Fearless sailors and fearsome fighters, they would appear out of the morning mists to do their bloody work and be back at sea before the sun had reached its zenith, their longships laden with plunder and crowded with wailing children and frightened women.
Archmaester Haereg has argued that it was a need for wood that first set the ironborn on this bloody path. In the dawn of days, there were extensive forests on Great Wyk, Harlaw, and Orkmont, but the shipwrights of the isles had such a voracious need for timber that one by one the woods vanished. So the ironborn had no choice but to turn to the vast forests of the green lands, the mainland of Westeros.
All that the islands lacked the reavers found in the green lands. Little and less was taken in trade;
much and more was bought in blood, with the point of a sword or the edge of an axe. And when the reavers returned to the islands with such plunder, they would say that they had “paid the iron price” for it; those who stayed behind “paid the gold price” to acquire these treasures, or went without. And thusly, Haereg tells us, were the reavers and their deeds exalted above all by singers, smallfolk, and priests alike.
Many legends have come down to us through the millennia of the salt kings and reavers who made the Sunset Sea their own, men as wild and cruel and fearless as any who have ever lived. Thus we hear of the likes of Torgon the Terrible, Jorl the Whale, Dagon Drumm the necromancer, Hrothgar of Pyke and his kraken-summoning horn, and Ragged Ralf of Old Wyk.
Most infamous of all was Balon Blackskin, who fought with an axe in his left hand and a hammer in his right. No weapon made of man could harm him, it was said; swords glanced off and left no mark, and axes shattered against his skin.
Did such men ever truly walk the earth? It is hard to know since most supposedly lived and died thousands of years before the ironmen learned to write; literacy remains rare in the Iron Islands to this day, and those who have the skill are oft mocked as weaklings or feared as sorcerers. So much of what we know of these demigods of the dawn comes to us from the peoples they plundered and preyed upon, written in the Old Tongue and the runes of the First Men.
The lands the reavers plundered were densely wooded but thinly peopled in those days. Then as now, the ironborn were loath to go too far from the salt waters that sustained them, but they ruled the Sunset Sea from Bear Island and the Frozen Shore down to the Arbor. The feeble fishing boats and trading cogs of the First Men, which seldom ventured out of sight of land, were no match for the swift longships of the ironmen with their great sails and banks of oars. And when battle was joined upon the shores, mighty kings and famous warriors fell before the reavers like wheat before a scythe, in such numbers that the men of the green lands told each other that the ironborn were demons risen from some watery hell, protected by fell sorceries and possessed of foul black weapons that drank the very souls of those they slew.
Whenever autumn waned and winter threatened, the longships would come raiding after food. And so the Iron Islands ate, even in the depths of winter, whilst oft as not the men who had planted, tended, and harvested the crops starved. “We do not sow,” became the boast of the Greyjoys, whose rulers began to style themselves Lords Reaper of Pyke.
The reavers brought more than gold and grain back to the Iron Islands; they brought captives as well, who would henceforth serve their captors as thralls. Amongst the ironborn, only reaving and fishing were considered worthy work for free men. The endless stoop labor of farm and field was suitable only for thralls. The same was true for mining. Yet those thralls who were set to field work counted themselves fortunate, Haereg writes, for many and more of them lived to grow old and were even allowed to marry and have children. Such could not be said of those condemned to work the mines—those dark, dangerous pits beneath the hills where the masters were brutal, the air was dank and foul, and life was short.
Most of the male captives brought back to the Iron Islands spent the remainder of their lives at hard labor in the fields or mines. Some few, the sons of lords and knights and rich merchants, were ransomed for gold. Thralls who could read, write, and do sums served their masters as stewards, tutors, and scribes. Stonemasons, cordwainers, coopers, chandlers, carpenters, and other skilled craftsmen were even more valuable.
Thralldom was a common practice amongst the First Men during their long dominion over Westeros—further support for the ironborn having descended from the First Men.
Further, thralldom should not be conflated with chattel slavery as it exists in certain of the Free Cities and lands farther east. Unlike slaves, thralls retain certain important rights.
A thrall belongs to his captor, and owes him service and obedience, but he is still a man, not property. Thralls cannot be bought or sold. They may own property, marry as they wish, have children. The children of slaves are born into bondage, but the children of thralls are born free; any babe born on one of the islands is considered ironborn, even when both his parents are thralls. Nor may such children be taken from their parents until the age of seven, when most begin an apprenticeship or join a ship’s crew.
An ironborn reaver takes his prize. (illustration credit 117)
It was young women the reavers prized most, however. Older women were sometimes carried off by those captains in need of scullions, cooks, seamstresses, weavers, midwives, and the like, but fair maids and girls near their first flowering were taken on every raid. Most ended their days upon the islands as serving girls, whores, household drudges, or wives to other thralls, but the fairest and strongest and most nubile would be kept as salt wives by their captors.
In their marriage customs, as in their gods, the ironborn differ from mainland Westeros. Wherever the Faith prevails in the Seven Kingdoms, a man joins himself for life to a single wife, and a maid to but one husband. On the Iron Islands, however, a man may have only one “rock wife” (unless she should die, whereupon he may take another), but any number of “salt wives.” A rock wife must be a freeborn woman of the Iron Islands. Her place is at her man’s side in board and bed, and her children come before all others. Salt wives are almost always women and girls captured during raids. The number of salt wives that a man can support speaks to his power, wealth, and virility.
Still, it must not be thought that salt wives of the ironborn are no more than concubines, whores, or bed slaves. Salt marriages, like rock marriages, were customarily performed by priests of the Drowned God (albeit in ceremonies considerably less solemn than those that bind a man to his rock wife), and the children of such unions were considered legitimate. “Salt sons” may even inherit, when a man has no trueborn sons by his rock wife.
Salt marriage has declined notably on the Iron Islands since the Conquest, for Aegon the Dragon made the stealing of women a crime throughout the Seven Kingdoms (at the urging of Queen Rhaenys, it is said). The Conqueror also forbade the reavers to prey upon his own domains. These prohibitions have only been sporadically enforced under his successors, however, and many ironborn still yearn to return to what they call the Old Way.
In the Age of Heroes, the legends say, the ironborn were ruled by a mighty monarch known simply as the Grey King. The Grey King ruled the sea itself and took a mermaid to wife, so his sons and daughters might live above the waves or beneath them as they chose. His hair and beard and eyes were as grey as a winter sea, and from these he took his name. The crown he wore was made of driftwood, so all who knelt before him might know that his kingship came from the sea and the Drowned God who dwells beneath it.
The deeds attributed to the Grey King by the priests and singers of the Iron Islands are many and marvelous. It was the Grey King who brought fire to the earth by taunting the Storm God until he lashed down with a thunderbolt, setting a tree ablaze. The Grey King also taught men to weave nets and sails and carved the first longship from the hard pale wood of Ygg, a demon tree who fed on human flesh.