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The Grey King’s greatest feat, however, was the slaying of Nagga, largest of the sea dragons, a beast so colossal that she was said to feed on leviathans and giant krakens and drown whole islands in her wroth. The Grey King built a mighty longhall about her bones, using her ribs as beams and rafters. From there he ruled the Iron Islands for a thousand years, until his very skin had turned as grey as his hair and beard. Only then did he cast aside his driftwood crown and walk into the sea, descending to the Drowned God’s watery halls to take his rightful place at his right hand.
The Grey King was king over all the Iron Islands, but he left a hundred sons behind him, and upon his death they began to quarrel over who would succeed him. Brother killed brother in an orgy of kinslaying until only sixteen remained. These last survivors divided up the islands between them. All the great houses of the ironborn claim descent from the Grey King and his sons save, curiously, the Goodbrothers of Old Wyk and Great Wyk, who supposedly derive from the Grey King’s leal eldest brother.
The petrified bones of some gigantic sea creature do indeed stand on Nagga’s Hill on Old Wyk, but whether they are actually the bones of a sea dragon remains open to dispute. The ribs are huge, but nowise near large enough to have belonged to a dragon capable of feasting on leviathans and giant krakens. In truth, the very existence of sea dragons has been called into question by some. If such monsters do exist, they must surely dwell in the deepest, darkest reaches of the Sunset Sea, for none has been seen in the known world for thousands of years.
So say the legends and the priests of the Drowned God.
History tells a different tale. The oldest surviving records at the Citadel reveal that each of the Iron Islands was once a separate kingdom, ruled by not one but two kings, a rock king and a salt king. The former ruled the island itself, dispensing justice, making laws, and settling disputes. The latter commanded at sea, whenever and wherever the island’s longships sailed.
Surviving records suggest that the rock kings were almost always older than the salt kings; in some cases the two were father and son, which has led some to argue that the salt kings were no more than heirs, crown princes to their fathers. Yet there are other instances known to us where the rock king and salt king were of different houses, sometimes even rival houses known to be inimical to one another.
Elsewhere in Westeros, petty kings claimed crowns of gold by virtue of their birth and blood, but the driftwood crowns of the ironborn were not so easily won. Here alone in all of Westeros men made their own kings, assembling in great councils called kingsmoots to choose the rock kings and salt kings who would rule over them. Whenever a king died, the priests of the Drowned God would call a kingsmoot to choose his successor. Every man who owned and captained a boat was allowed a voice at these unruly gatherings, which oft went on for days, and in a few instances far longer. The ironborn also tell of occasions when the priests called “the captains and the kings” together to remove an unworthy ruler.
The power wielded by these prophets of the Drowned God over the ironborn should not be underestimated. Only they could summon kingsmoots, and woe to the man, be he lord or king, who dared defy them. The greatest of the priests was the towering prophet Galon Whitestaff, so-called for the tall carved staff he carried everywhere to smite the ungodly. (In some tales his staff was made of weirwood, in others from one of Nagga’s bones.) It was Galon who decreed that ironborn must not make war on other ironborn, who forbade them to carry off each other’s women or raid each other’s shores, and who forged the Iron Islands into a single kingdom, summoning the captains and the kings to Old Wyk to choose a high king to reign supreme over salt kings and rock kings alike. They chose Urras Greyiron, called Ironfoot, the salt king of Orkmont and most fearsome reaver of that age. Galon himself placed a driftwood crown upon the high king’s head, and Urras Ironfoot became the first man since the Grey King to rule over all the ironborn.
Many years later, when Urras Ironfoot died of wounds sustained whilst reaving, his eldest son seized his crown and proclaimed himself King Erich I. Though half-blind and feeble with age by that time, Galon nonetheless arose in fury at these tidings, declaring that only the kingsmoot could make a king. The “captains and the kings” assembled once more on Old Wyk and Erich the Ugly was unmade and condemned to death, a fate he avoided by breaking up his father’s crown and casting it into the sea as a sign of his submission to the Drowned God. In his place the kingsmoot raised up Regnar Drumm, called Raven-feeder, the rock king of Old Wyk.
The centuries that followed were a golden age for the Iron Islands, and a dark age for such First Men as lived beside the sea. Once the reavers had gone forth seeking food to sustain them during hard winters, wood to build their longships, salt wives to give them sons, and the riches the Iron Islands lacked, but they had always returned home with their plunder. Under the driftwood kings the practice gave way to something far more difficult and dangerous: conquest, colonization, and rule.
By tradition, the driftwood crown itself was broken up and returned to the sea upon the death of its wearer. His successor would don a new crown made from driftwood freshly washed up upon the shore of his home island. Thus every driftwood crown was different from those that had gone before. Some were small and simple, others huge, unwieldy, and magnificent.
Archmaester Haereg’s exhaustive History of the Ironborn lists 111 men who wore a driftwood crown as High King of the Iron Islands. The list is admittedly incomplete and rife with contradictions, yet none can doubt that the driftwood kings reached the zenith of their power under Qhored I Hoare (given as Greyiron in some accounts, and as Blacktyde in others), who wrote his name in blood in the histories of Westeros as Qhored the Cruel. King Qhored ruled over the ironborn for three-quarters of a century, living to the ripe old age of ninety. By his day, the First Men of the green lands had largely abandoned the shores of the Sunset Sea for fear of the reavers. And those who remained, chiefly lords in stout castles, paid tribute to the ironborn.
It was Qhored who famously boasted that his writ ran “wherever men could smell salt water or hear the crash of waves.” In his youth, he captured and sacked Oldtown, bringing thousands of women and girls back to the Iron Islands in chains. At thirty, he defeated the Lords of the Trident in battle, forcing the river king Bernarr II to bend the knee and yield up his three young sons as hostages. Three years later, he put the boys to death with his own hand, cutting out their hearts when their father’s annual tribute was late in coming. When their grieving sire went to war to avenge them, King Qhored and his ironmen destroyed Bernarr’s host and had him drowned as a sacrifice to the Drowned God, putting an end to House Justman and throwing the riverlands into bloody anarchy.
But after Qhored, a slow decline began. The kings who followed Qhored played a part in that, yet the men of the green lands were likewise growing stronger. The First Men were building longships of their own, their towns defended by stone walls in place of wooden palisades and spiked ditches.
The Gardeners and the Hightowers were the first to cease paying tribute. When King Theon III Greyjoy sailed against them, he was defeated and slain by Lord Lymond Hightower, the Sea Lion, who revived the practice of thralldom in Oldtown just long enough to set the ironmen captured during the battle to hard labor strengthening the city’s walls.
The growing strength of the westerlands posed an even more acute threat to the dominion of the driftwood kings. Fair Isle was the first to fall, when its smallfolk rose up under Gylbert Farman to expel their ironborn overlords. A generation later, the Lannisters captured the town of Kayce when Herrock the Whoreson blew his great gold-banded horn and the town whores opened a postern gate to his men. Three successive ironborn kings attempted to retake the prize and failed, two of them dying on the point of Herrock’s sword.
The ultimate indignity came courtesy of Gerold Lannister, King of the Rock. Gerold the Great, as he is remembered in the west, sailed his own fleet to the Iron Islands themselves in a daring raid, taking a hundred ironborn hostages. He kept them in Casterly Rock thereafter, hanging one every time his shores were raided.
In the century that followed, a succession of weaker kings lost the Arbor, Bear Island, Flint’s Finger, and most of the ironborn enclaves along the Sunset Sea, until only a handful remained.
It must not be thought that the ironborn won no victories during these years. Balon V Greyjoy, called Coldwind, destroyed the feeble fleets of the King in the North. Erich V Harlaw retook Fair Isle in his youth, only to lose it again in his old age. His son Harron slew Gareth the Grim of Highgarden beneath the walls of Oldtown. Half a century later, Joron I Blacktyde captured Gyles II Gardener when their fleets clashed off the Misty Islands. After torturing him to death, Joron had his corpse cut into pieces so that he might bait his fishhooks with “a chunk of king.” Later in his reign, Joron swept across the Arbor with steel and fire, and supposedly carried off every woman on the island under thirty years of age, thereby earning himself the name Maidensbane, by which he is best remembered.
An ironborn longship at sea. (illustration credit 118)
Yet all these triumphs proved short-lived, along with many of the kings who won them. As the centuries passed, the kingdoms of the green lands grew stronger and the Iron Islands weaker. And late in the Age of Heroes, another crisis weakened and divided the ironborn further still.
Upon the death of King Urragon III Greyiron (Urragon the Bald), his younger sons hurriedly convened a kingsmoot whilst their elder brother Torgon was raiding up the Mander, thinking that one of them would be chosen to wear the driftwood crown. To their dismay, the captains and kings chose Urrathon Goodbrother of Great Wyk instead. The first thing the new king did was command that the sons of the old king be put to death. For that, and for the savage cruelty he oft displayed during his two years as king, Urrathon IV Goodbrother is remembered in history as Badbrother.
When Torgon Greyiron returned at last to the Iron Islands, he declared the kingsmoot to be invalid because he had not been present to make a claim. The priests supported him in this, for they had grown weary of Badbrother’s arrogance and impiety. Smallfolk and great lords alike arose at their call, rallying to Torgon’s banners, until Urrathon’s own captains hacked Urrathon into pieces. Torgon the Latecomer became king in his stead, and ruled for forty years without ever having been chosen and proclaimed at a kingsmoot. He proved to be a strong king, just and wise and fair-minded … but he could do little to arrest the declining fortunes of the Iron Islands, for it was during Torgon’s reign that most of the Cape of Eagles was lost to the Mallisters of Seagard.
Torgon had struck one blow against the institution of the kingsmoot in his youth, by throwing over its chosen king. In his old age he struck another, calling upon his own son Urragon to help him rule. At court and council, in war and peace, the son remained at his father’s side for the best part of five years, so when Torgon finally died it seemed only natural for his chosen heir to succeed him as Urragon IV Greyiron. No kingsmoot was summoned, and this time no Galon Whitestaff arose in wroth to protest the succession.
The final, fatal blow against the power of the captains and the kings assembled was dealt when Urragon IV himself died, after a long but undistinguished reign. It had been the dying king’s wish that the high kingship pass to his great-nephew Urron Greyiron, salt king of Orkmont, known as Urron Redhand. The priests of the Drowned God were determined not to allow the power of kingmaking to be taken from them for a third time, so word went forth that the captains and kings should assemble on Old Wyk for a kingsmoot.
Hundreds came, amongst them the salt kings and rock kings of the seven major isles, and even the Lonely Light. Yet scarcely had they gathered when Urron Redhand loosed his axemen on them, and Nagga’s ribs ran red with blood. Thirteen kings died that day, and half a hundred priests and prophets. It was the end of the kingsmoots, and the Redhand ruled as high king for twenty-two years thereafter, and his descendants after him. The wandering holy men never again made and unmade kings as they once had.
THE IRON KINGS
The Greyirons were amongst the oldest and most renowned of the great houses of the Iron Islands.
During the long age of the kingsmoot, the captains and kings bestowed driftwood crowns on no fewer than thirty-eight Greyirons, according to Haereg, giving them twice as many high kings as any other house.
That era ended with Urron Redhand and the slaughter on Old Wyk. Henceforth the crown of the Iron Islands would be made of black iron and would pass from father to son by right of primogeniture.
Nor would the Greyirons suffer any other kings on the isles. There would be no more salt kings, no more rock kings. Urron Redhand and his heirs styled themselves simply King of the Iron Islands. The rulers of Great Wyk, Old Wyk, Pyke, Harlaw, and the lesser isles were reduced to lords, and several ancient lines were extinguished entirely when they refused to bend their knees.