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The Fisher Queens were wise and benevolent and favored of the gods, we are told, and kings and lords and wise men sought the floating palace for their counsel. Beyond their domains, however, other peoples rose and fell and fought, struggling for a place in the sun. Some maesters believe that the First Men originated here before beginning the long westward migration that took them across the Arm of Dorne to Westeros. The Andals, too, may have arisen in the fertile fields south of the Silver Sea. Tales are told of the Hairy Men, a race of shaggy savage warriors, who rode to battle on unicorns. Though larger than the Ibbenese of the present, they may well have been their forebears. We hear as well of the lost city Lyber, where acolytes of a spider goddess and a serpent god fought an endless, bloody war. East of them stood the kingdoms of the centaurs, half man and half horse.
In the southeast the proud city-states of the Qaathi arose; in the forests to the north, along the shores of the Shivering Sea, were the domains of the woods walkers, a diminutive folk whom many maesters believe to have been kin to the children of the forest; between them could be found the hill kingdoms of the Cymmeri, the long-legged Gipps with their wicker shields and lime-stiffened hair, and the brown-skinned pale-haired Zoqora, who rode to war in chariots.
Most of these peoples are gone now, their cities burned and buried, their gods and heroes all but forgotten. Of the Qaathi cities, only Qarth remains, dreaming of past glories beside the jealously guarded Jade Gates, which link the Summer and Jade seas. The others were extinguished, driven into exile, or conquered and assimilated by the people who succeeded them.
Westeros remembers their conquerors as the Sarnori, for at its height their great kingdom included all the lands watered by the Sarne and its vassals, and the three great lakes that were all that remained of the shrinking Silver Sea. They called themselves the Tall Men (in their own tongue the Tagaez Fen). Long of limb and brown of skin they were, like the Zoqora, though their hair and eyes were black as night. Warriors, sorcerers, and scholars, they traced their descent to the hero king they called Huzhor Amai (the Amazing), born of the last of the Fisher Queens, who took to wife the daughters of the greatest lords and kings of the Gipps, the Cymmeri, and the Zoqora, binding all three peoples to his rule. His Zoqora wife drove his chariot, it is said, his Cymer wife made his armor (for her people were the first to work iron), and he wore about his shoulders a great cloak made from the pelt of a king of the Hairy Men.
Archmaester Hagedorn has put forth the theory that the centaurs were no more than mounted warriors, as perceived by neighboring tribes who had not yet learned to tame and ride horses. His views have become widely accepted at the Citadel, despite the purported “centaur skeletons” that turn up in grotesqueries from time to time.
Such a man may or may not ever have existed, but none can doubt the glory of the Tall Men at their height. A proud and quarrelsome people, they were seldom ever united under a single ruler, but their kingdoms dominated the western grasslands, from the forest of Qohor to the eastern shores of the vanished Silver Sea, and fifty leagues beyond. Their gleaming cities were strewn across the grasslands like jewels across a green velvet mantle, shining beneath the light of sun and stars.
The greatest of these cities was Sarnath of the Tall Towers, where the High King dwelt in his fabled Palace With a Thousand Rooms.
By law and custom all the lesser Sarnori kings were subject to the High King, but in truth very few of the High Kings ever exercised any real power.
Eastward rose Kasath, City of Caravans; Sathar, the Waterfall City, at the juncture of two branches of the Sarne; Gornath by the Lake, with its canals; Sallosh by the Silver Shore, City of Scholars, with its vast library and Painted Walls. Downstream, where the Sarne turned north, the prosperous river cities Rathylar, Hornoth, and Kyth served the ships that plied her deep blue waters. Here, too, stood Mardosh, the City of Soldiers, renowned as Mardosh the Unconquerable. At the delta, where the Sarne splintered and flowed into the Shivering Sea, could be found the port cities Saath (to the west) and Sarys (to the east).
The Kingdom of Sarnor (so called, though it boasted twoscore rival kings) was amongst the known world’s great civilizations for more than two thousand years, yet much of what we know of them comes only from fragments of their otherwise lost histories, most notably the Summer and Winter Annals, and records of them from Qarth, Slaver’s Bay, and the Free Cities. Sarnori traders traveled to Valyria and Yi Ti, to Leng and Asshai. Sarnori ships sailed the Shivering Sea to Ib and the Thousand Islands and Far Mossovy. Sarnori kings warred against the Qaathi and the Old Empire of Ghis, and led many a foray against the bands of nomadic horsemen who roamed the steppes to their east.
Their riders wore steel and spider silk and rode coal-black mares, whilst the greatest of their warriors went to battle in scythed chariots pulled by teams of bloodred horses (oft driven by their wives or daughters, for it was the custom amongst the Sarnori for men and women to make war together).
Even in the Seven Kingdoms, the glory of Sarnath of the Tall Towers was celebrated, and Lomas Longstrider included the Palace With a Thousand Rooms amongst his nine Wonders Made by Man.
Today, however, the Kingdom of Sarnor is largely forgotten, and there are many and more in Westeros, even students at the Citadel, who know little and less of its long, proud history. Their towers are all fallen, their cities ruined and abandoned, and noxious weeds and tall grasses grow where once their farms and fields and towns were found. The lands that they once ruled are but thinly peopled and traversed only by the wandering khalasars of the Dothraki horselords and such caravans as the khals permit to make the long, slow crossing from the Free Cities to Vaes Dothrak and the Mother of Mountains.
Travelers name these the Haunted Lands for the many ruined cities that dot them, or the Great Desolation for their emptiness, but it is as the Dothraki sea that these grasslands are best known today. That usage is comparatively recent, however, for the Dothraki are a young race, and it was only since the Doom destroyed Valyria that their khalasars came to dominate these lands, sweeping out of the east with fire and steel to conquer and destroy the ancient cities that once thrived here and carrying off their peoples into bondage.
The fall of the great Sarnori kingdoms took less than a century. Even as the Free Cities of the west became locked in a savage struggle for domination during what became known as the Century of Blood, the grasslands, too, exploded into war. During the years that followed the Doom, the riders of the eastern steppes, hitherto divided into threescore quarrelsome tribes at perpetual war with one another, had finally been united under a single leader, a Dothraki khal called Mengo. Counseled by his mother, the purported witch queen Doshi, Khal Mengo compelled the other nomads to accept his rule, extinguishing or enslaving those who refused.
The Old Empire of Ghis fought five wars against the rising Freehold of Valyria, history tells us. In the Second and Third Ghiscari Wars, the Tall Men took up their swords as allies of Valyria. In the Fourth War, rival kings took opposite sides, some joining the Ghiscari and others the Valyrians. Lomas Longstrider wrote of a fallen obelisk carved about with the figures of Ghis’s allies in that fourth war, and noted that the tallest warriors depicted— made taller by high helms—were the Sarnori. The obelisk was raised by Ghis, but the carvings were Valyrian, for all the warriors were captured and enslaved.
Then, in his old age, he turned his eyes westward.
Contemptuous of the horselords, who had been no more than a nuisance to them for centuries, the Tall Men ignored the threat from the east for far too long, even as the khalasars began to raid across their eastern marches. Some of their kings even sought to use the Dothraki in their own wars, offering them gold and slaves and other gifts to fight against their rivals. Khal Mengo took these gifts gladly … then took the conquered lands as well, burning fields and farms and towns to return the grasslands to their wild state (for the Dothraki consider the earth to be their mother and think it sinful to cut her flesh with plows and spades and axes).
Not until Mengo’s son Khal Moro brought his khalasar to the very gates of Sathar, the fabled Waterfall City, did the Tall Men seem to realize their peril. Broken in battle, the men of Sathar were put to the sword, their women and children carried off as slaves; three-quarters of them died on the grueling march south to slave marts at the Ghiscari hill city Hazdahn Mo. Sathar, loveliest of the cities of the grasslands, was burned to ash and rubble. It is written that it was Khal Moro himself who gave the ruins their new name: Yalli Qamayi, the place of Wailing Children.
Even then, the kings of Sarnor proved unable to unite. As Sathar burned, the kings of Kasath to the west and Gornath to the north sent forth their armies, not to aid their neighbors but to lay claim to a share of the plunder. In their greed for land, Kasath and Gornath even came into conflict with one another and fought a pitched battle three days’ ride west of Sathar, as plumes of black smoke rose in the eastern sky.
This is not the place to chronicle the events of the years and wars that followed, as the great cities of the Kingdoms of Sarnor fell piecemeal to the Dothraki. Those who wish a more detailed account are directed to Bello’s The End of the Tall Men, Maester Illister’s Horse Tribes, Being a Study of the Nomads of the Eastern Plains of Essos, the eastern chapters and appendices of Maester Joseth’s Battles and Sieges of the Century of Blood, and Vaggoro’s definitive Ruined Cities, Stolen Gods.
Let it suffice to say that of all the proud Sarnori cities, only Saath remains unruined today, and that port city is a sad place, much diminished from what it once was, surviving largely because of support from Ib and Lorath (whose colony of Morosh is nearby). Only in Saath do men still name themselves Tagaez Fen; fewer than twenty thousand remain, when once the Tall Men numbered in the millions.
Only there are the hundred gods of the Kingdom of Sarnor still worshipped. The bronze and marble likenesses that once adorned the streets and temples of the Tall Men now lean crookedly, overgrown by weeds, along the grassy ways of Vaes Dothrak, the sacred city of the horselords.
Sathar was the first of the cities of the grasslands to fall to the Dothraki, but by no means the last.
Six years later, Khal Moro razed Kasath as well. In this attack his riders were aided, incredibly, by Gornath, whose king had made common cause with the Dothraki and taken one of Moro’s daughters to wife. Yet Gornath itself fell next, a dozen years afterward. Khal Horro had by that time slain Khal Moro, ending the line of the mighty Khal Mengo. The King of Gornath died at the hand of his own Dothraki wife, who despised him for his weakness, we are told. Afterward, Khal Horro took her for his own, as rats devoured the corpse of her late husband.
Horro was the last of the great khals to command the allegiance of all Dothraki. When he was slain by a rival, only three years after the destruction of Gornath, his great khalasar splintered into a dozen lesser hordes, and the riders once again resumed their quarrelsome ways. Yet the reprieve this provided the Kingdom of Sarnor proved short-lived, for the Tall Men had shown their weakness, and the khals who followed Horro shared his taste for conquest. In the years that followed, they strove to outdo one another by conquering ever wider territories, destroying the cities of the grasslands, enslaving their peoples, and carrying their broken gods back to Vaes Dothrak to testify to their victories.
One by one, the remaining cities of the Tall Men were overwhelmed and destroyed, leaving only ruins and ashes to mark where their proud towers once stood. For scholars and students of history, the fall of Sallosh by the Silver Shore was especially tragic, for when that City of Scholars burned, its great library was not spared, and most of the history of the Tall Men and the peoples who had gone before them were lost for all time.
Kyth and Hornoth soon followed, destroyed by rival khals, each of whom sought to outdo the other in savagery. The fortress city Mardosh the Unconquerable defied the horselands the longest. For close unto six years the city endured, cut off from its hinterlands, encircled by a succession of khalasars.
Driven to starvation, the Mardoshi devoured their dogs and horses, then rats and mice and other vermin, and finally began to eat their own dead. When they could endure no longer, the surviving warriors of the city garrison slew their own wives and children to keep them from the khals, then opened the city gates and rushed forth for one final attack. They were cut down to a man. Afterward, the Dothraki named the ruins of Mardosh Vaes Gorqoyi, the City of the Blood Charge.
The fall of Mardosh finally awakened the remaining Sarnori kings to the depth of their peril.
Putting aside their own quarrels and rivalries at last, the Tall Men gathered from up and down the Sarne, assembling a great army beneath the walls of Sarnath, intent on breaking the power of the khals for good and all. Led by Mazor Alexi, last of the High Kings, they struck out boldly to the east. In the tall grass halfway between Sarnath and the ruins of Kasath, they met the assembled power of four khalasars on what forever after was known as the Field of Crows.
The battle before the gates of Sathar. (illustration credit 181)
Khal Haro, Khal Qano, Khal Loso (the Lame), and Khal Zhako commanded almost eighty thousand horsemen between them, we are told. The great host of the High King of Sarnor was led by six thousand scythed chariots, with ten thousand armored riders behind them, and another ten thousand light horsemen (many of them women) on the flanks. Behind them marched the Sarnori foot, close to a hundred thousand spearmen and slingers, giving the Tall Men a great advantage in numbers. On this all chroniclers agree.