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Distances meant little and less to the dragonlords in the summer of their power, however. It is written in The Fires of the Freehold that a hundred dragons took to the skies, following the great river north to descend upon the Andals as they lay siege to Norvos. Qarlon the Great burned with his army, and afterward the dragonlords flew onward, bringing blood and fire to the isles of Lorath.
Qarlon’s great keep went up in flames, as did the towns and fishing villages along his shores. Even the great stones of the mazes were scorched and blackened by the firestorms that swept across the islands. It is said that not a man, woman, or child survived the Scouring of Lorath, so hot did those fires burn.
Thereafter the Lorathi isles remained uninhabited for more than a century. Seals and walrus returned in great numbers, and crabs scuttled through the scorched and silent mazes. Whalers from the Port of Ibben put ashore to mend their hulls or find freshwater, but they never ventured inland, for the islands were said to be haunted, and the Ibbenese believed any man accursed who went beyond the sound of the sea.
When men at last returned to the isles to live, they were men from Valyria itself. Thirteen hundred and twenty-two years before the Doom, a sect of religious dissidents left the Freehold to establish a temple upon Lorath’s main isle.
These new Lorathi were worshippers of Boash, the Blind God. Rejecting all other deities, the followers of Boash ate no flesh, drank no wine, and walked barefoot through the world, clad only in hair shirts and hides. Their eunuch priests wore eyeless hoods in honor of their god; only in darkness, they believed, would their third eye open, allowing them to see the “higher truths” of creation that lay concealed behind the world’s illusions. The worshippers of Boash believed that all life was sacred and eternal; that men and women were equal; that lords and peasants, rich and poor, slave and master, man and beast were all alike, all equally worthy, all creatures of god.
An essential part of their doctrine was an extreme abnegation of self; only by freeing themselves of human vanity could men hope to become one with the godhood. Accordingly, the Boash’i put aside even their own names, and spoke of themselves as “a man” or “a woman” rather than say “I” or “me” or “mine.” Though the cult of the Blind God withered and died out more than a thousand years ago, certain of these habits of speech endure even now in Lorath, where men and women of the noble classes regard it as inutterably vulgar to speak of one’s self directly.
The Blind God and his followers made the ancient mazes of the first Lorathi their towns, temples, and tombs, and dominated the islands for three-quarters of a century. But as the years passed, other men, who did not share their faith, began to cross the bay to hunt seal and walrus or fish for cod.
Some chose to stay. Huts and hovels sprang up anew along the shores and became villages. Men came from Ib and Andalos and other, stranger lands, and the islands became a refuge for freedmen and escaped slaves from Valyria and its proud daughters, for the priests of the Blind God taught that every man was the equal of every other. Three fishing villages on the western end of the largest isle waxed so populous and prosperous that they grew together into a town, and with the passage of years stone houses grew where daub-and-wattle hovels once stood, and the town became a city.
These new Lorathi were at first subservient to the followers of Boash who had come before them, and for many years the priests of the Blind God continued to rule the islands. In time, however, the numbers of newcomers swelled whilst the ranks of the faithful dwindled. The worship of Boash fell away, as the priests who remained became more worldly and corrupt, forsaking their hair shirts, hoods, and piety and growing fat and rich off the taxes they extracted from those they ruled. Finally the fishermen, farmers, and other smallfolk rose in rebellion, throwing off the shackles of Boash. The remaining acolytes of the Blind God were slaughtered—all save a small handful who fled to the great temple maze on Lorassyon, where they remained for the best part of a century, until the last of them died.
After the fall of the blind priests, Lorath became a freehold after the manner of Valyria, ruled over by a council of three princes. The Harvest Prince was chosen by a vote of all those who owned land upon the islands, the Fisher Prince by all those who owned ships, the Prince of the Streets by the acclamation of the free men of the city. Once chosen, each prince served for life.
These three princes continue to sit today, though the titles have become purely ceremonial. The true authority resides with a council of magisters made up of nobles, priests, and merchants. Its isolation meant that the Lorathi were little involved in the events of the Century of Blood, save for those few who sold their swords to Braavos or Norvos.
Today Lorath is generally accounted the least of the Nine Free Cities; the poorest, the most isolated, the most backward. Though possessed of large fleets of fishing vessels, the Lorathi build few warships and have little in the way of military power. Few Lorathi ever leave their islands, and fewer still ever make their way to Westeros. They prefer to trade with their nearer neighbors, Norvos, Braavos, and Ib.
The Free City of Norvos stands upon the eastern banks of the river Noyne, one of the greatest of the vassal streams of the Rhoyne. The high city, ringed about by mighty stone walls, looms above high, stony bluffs. Three hundred feet below, the lower city spreads along the muddy shores, defended by moats, ditches, and a timber palisade much overgrown with moss. The ancient nobility of Norvos lives in the upper city, dominated by the great fortress-temple of the bearded priests; the poor huddle below amongst the wharves, brothels, and beer halls that line the riverfront. The two parts of the city are joined only by a massive stone stair, called the Sinner’s Steps.
Great Norvos, as the Norvoshi name their city, is surrounded by rugged limestone hills and dense, dark forests of oak and pine and beech, home to bears and boars and wolves, and game of all sorts.
The city’s domains stretch as far as the western bank of the Darkwash to the east and the Upper Rhoyne to the west. Norvoshi river galleys rule the Noyne as far south as the ruins of Ny Sar, where she joins the Rhoyne. Great Norvos even claims dominion over the Axe upon the Shivering Sea, though this claim is disputed, often bloodily, by the Ibbenese.
Close by the city walls, the Norvoshi work the land on the terraced farms. Farther out, men gather behind stout timber palisades in holdfasts and walled villages. The streams here are swift-running and stony, and caverns honeycomb the endless hills. Many of the caves are home to the brown bears common to these northern lands, others to packs of red or grey wolves. In some can be found the bones of giants and painted walls that speak of men’s dwelling here in ages past. One cavern system, some hundred leagues northwest of Norvos, is so vast and deep that legend claims it is the entrance to the underworld; Lomas Longstrider visited it once and counted it as one of the world’s seven natural wonders in his book Wonders.
Some scholars have suggested that the dragonlords regarded all faiths as equally false, believing themselves to be more powerful than any god or goddess. They looked upon priests and temples as relics of a more primitive time, though useful for placating “slaves, savages, and the poor” with promises of a better life to come. Moreover, a multiplicity of gods helped to keep their subjects divided and lessened the chances of their uniting under the banner of a single faith to overthrow their overlords. Religious tolerance was to them a means of keeping the peace in the Lands of the Long Summer.
Though Great Norvos dominates the headwaters of the Rhoyne today, the Norvoshi are not descended from the Rhoynar who ruled that mighty river of old. Like the other Free Cities, Norvos is a daughter of Valyria. Yet before the Valyrians another people dwelt along the Noyne where Norvos stands today, raising rude villages of their own.
Who were these predecessors? Some believe them to have been kin to the mazemakers of Lorath, but that seems unlikely, for they built in wood, not stone, and left no mazes to confound us. Others suggest that they were cousins of the men of Ib. Most, however, believe them to have been Andals.
Whoever these first Norvoshi might have been, their towns did not survive. Legend tells us they were driven from the Noyne by an onslaught of hairy men out of the east, surely some close kin of the Ibbenese. These invaders in turn were expelled by the fabled prince of Ny Sar, Garris the Grey, but the Rhoynar did not linger, preferring the more temperate climes of the lower river to the dark skies and cold winds of the hills.
Like her sister cities Lorath and Qohor, the Free City of Norvos as we know her today was originally founded by religious dissidents from Valyria. At the height of her power, the Freehold was home to a hundred temples; some had tens of thousands of worshippers, some precious few, but no faith was forbidden in Valyria, nor were any exalted above the others.
Many Valyrians worshipped more than one god, turning to different deities according to their needs; more, it is said, worshipped none at all. Most regarded freedom of faith as a hallmark of any truly advanced civilization. Yet to some, this plethora of gods was a source of continuing grievance.
“The man who honors all the gods honors none at all,” a prophet of the Lord of Light, R’hllor the Red, once famously declared. And even at the height of its glory, the Freehold was home to many who believed fiercely in their own particular god or goddess and regarded all others as false idols, frauds, or demons, bent on deceiving mankind.
Dozens of such sects flourished in Valyria, sometimes quarreling violently with one another.
Inevitably, some found the tolerance of the Freehold to be intolerable and set out into the wilderness to found cities of their own, godly cities where only the “true faith” would be practiced. We have already spoken of the followers of the Blind God Boash who founded Lorath and what befell them there. Qohor was settled by worshippers of that grim deity known only as the Black Goat, as shall be related shortly. But the sect that settled Norvos is as strange, or stranger, than either of these, and far more secretive. Even the very name of their god is revealed only to initiates. That he is a stern deity cannot be doubted, for his priests wear hair shirts and untanned hides and practice ritual flagellation as part of their worship. Once initiated, they are forbidden to shave or cut their hair.
From the founding to the present, Great Norvos has been a theocracy, ruled by its bearded priests, who are themselves ruled by their god, who speaks his commands to them from the depths of their fortress-temple, which only true believers may enter and live. Though the city has a council of magisters, its members are selected by the god, speaking through his priests. To enforce obedience and keep the peace, the bearded priests keep a holy guard of slave soldiers, fierce fighters who bear the brand of a double-bladed axe upon their breasts and ritually marry the longaxes they fight with.
Only Norvoshi priests are permitted beards; freeborn Norvoshi of both high and low birth favor long, unswept mustachios, whilst slaves and women are shaved bare. Norvoshi women, indeed, shave off all their body hair, though the ladies of the nobility will don wigs, especially when thrust into the company of men from other lands and cities.
Travelers paint upper Norvos as a grim grey place of sweltering summers, bitter cold winters, harsh winds, and unending prayer. The lower city, with its riverman’s haunts, brothels, and taverns, is said to be much livelier. There, out of the sight of priests and nobles alike, lowborn Norvoshi feast on red meat and river pike, washed down with strong black beer and fermented goat’s milk, whilst bears dance for their amusement and (it is whispered) slave women mate with wolves in torchlit cellars.
Archmaester Perestan notes the importance the Norvoshi give to the axe as a symbol of power and might and proposes that this is proof that the Andals were the first to settle Norvos, suggesting the bearded priests took the emblem from ruins they found as they established Great Norvos. As he argues, next to the carvings of seven-pointed stars, carvings of a double-bladed axe appeared to have been the next most favored symbol of the holy warriors who conquered the old Seven Kingdoms.
Etched in Stone by Archmaester Harmune contains a catalog of such carvings found throughout the Vale. Stars and axes are found from the Fingers into the Mountains of the Moon, and even as far into the Vale of Arryn as the base of the Giant’s Lance. Harmune supposes that, with time, the Andals became more devoted to the symbol of the sevenpointed star and so the axe fell by the wayside as an emblem of the Faith.
It should be said, however, that not all agree that these carvings represent axes. In his refutation, Maester Evlyn argues that what Harmune calls axes are in fact hammers, the sign of the Smith. He explains the irregularity of the depictions of these hammers as the result of the Andals’ being warriors, not artisans.
A procession honoring the sacred god of Norvos. (illustration credit 162)
No account of Great Norvos is complete without a mention of the city’s three bells, whose peals govern every aspect of city life, telling the Norvoshi when to rise, when to sleep, when to work, when to rest, when to take arms, when to pray (often), and even when they are permitted to have carnal relations (rather less often, if the tales be true). Each of the bells has its own distinctive “voice,” whose sound is known to all true Norvoshi. The bells bear the names Noom, Narrah, and Nyel;
Lomas Longstride was so taken by them that he named them one of his nine Wonders Made by Man.
QOHOR Even more mysterious than Norvos and Lorath is their sinister sister, the Free City of Qohor, easternmost of all the daughters of Valyria. Qohor stands on the river Qhoyne on the western edge of the vast, dark, primordial forest to which she gives her name, the greatest wood in all of Essos.