With A Dance of Dragons due for release on 12 July 2011, a lot of people seem to having difficulty recalling exactly what character was doing what where, especially since Dragons is picking up a lot of its storylines left dangling in A Storm of Swords eleven years ago. So my first thought was to simply do a round-up of what was going on with each character at the end of the last book, based on what we know (via spoiler chapters and convention readings) of what's going on in Dragons. Unfortunately - but appropriately - it got a bit out of control and turned into a big article spanning the whole known history of the fiction setting. The article has been split in multiple parts for easier reading. Part 2 is forthcoming, but probably won't take six years.
Needless to say, if you are watching the TV series there will be mega-humongous spoilers for the entire series in these posts (though this first one isn't so bad).
Ancient PrehistoryTwelve thousand years ago (according to tradition), in the dawn of days, the lands of Westeros were inhabited by a diminutive race known as the children of the forest. The children were strong in magic but few in number, living long lives under the eaves of the forests which covered much of the continent at this time. The children worshipped the old gods of the forest, gods of wind and rain and sunlight, gods with no names but whose faces were carved into the barks of great weirwood trees.
Then men came from the east, crossing the Arm of Dorne to invade Westeros with bronze and fire. The children fought back, shattering the Arm of Dorne to no avail, leaving behind the broken islands of the Stepstones. Over generations of warfare, the children were pushed back to the Neck, the narrowest part of the continent, and tried again to break the land. They failed, only succeeding in creating a vast swampland. Still, these displays of magic gave the First Men pause. Eventually the two sides signed the Pact of the Isle of Faces, with the First Men taking the open lands for their own and the children remaining in the forests. The First Men and the children lived in peace for four thousand years, the First Men forging hundreds of small kingdoms of their own from the northern icecap to the southern deserts and taking the old gods for their own.
The Long Night and the War for the Dawn
Eight thousand years ago (at least, according to legend), a winter came that lasted a generation, and with it a lengthy period of darkness, the Long Night. And with the night came things, creatures of ice and cold from the uttermost north. The Others, or, as some called them, white walkers swept southwards, slaughtering all before them, children and men alike, and raising the dead to fight for them. The conflict became known as the War for the Dawn, when all of life in Westeros was imperilled, but eventually the First Men and the children proved victorious. Using weapons of obsidian and led by a great hero wielding a sword of fire (known in the east as Azhor Azhai), they threw the Others back into the furthest north in defeat. Behind them, at the narrowest part of the continent in the north, Brandon the Builder, Brandon Stark, raised with ice, gravel and sorcery a great wall. Stretching for three hundred miles, the Wall was a physical obstruction and a magical one, with sorcery woven into the structure to prevent the Others and their servants from passing south. In those early days the Wall was much shorter than later, but millennia of icefall added to its height, eventually raising it to over seven hundred feet in height.
Brandon Stark was acclaimed the first King in the North and built the great castle at Winterfell as his seat. He also founded the Night's Watch to man and guard the Wall and prevent the return of the Others. It was a time of greatness and glory, but the children, whose modest numbers had been reduced further in the war, decided their time in the lands of men was done. They gradually faded and disappeared over the course of the next few centuries.
The Andal InvasionTwo thousand years later, in a land called Andalos on the eastern continent, the people there received a vision from a god with seven faces. They were told to leave their homeland and march west to make a new home in Westeros. The Andals were a fierce race of warriors, equipped with iron weapons and having tamed horses to carry them into battle. They crossed the Narrow Sea on a fleet of ships, making landfall on the Fingers and sweeping across Westeros. The First Men who agreed to serve them were made to swear to the new gods, the Seven, and those who refused were initially slaughtered, though later accommodations were reached with some who held out, such as the Blackwoods, the kings whose vassals, the Brackens, accepted the Faith and overthrew them, but later made peace (though this still begun a blood feud that has lasted - according to myth - more than five millennia). But the last few strongholds of the children in the south vanished, and the great godswoods reduced to pleasure gardens in the walls of grand castles.
The Andals colonised all the south of Westeros, from the Iron Islands to the Vale and from Dorne to the Neck, but their attempts to pass north of the Neck and invade the North failed. The Starks of Winterfell threw back every attempt to cross the Neck, using the fortress of Moat Cailin to rain death down on all those who attempted it. Eventually the southron kingdoms made peace with the Starks, and in time there were marriage pacts and alliances. However, on the Iron Islands the initially successful Andal invasion was eventually reversed, with both the followers of the old gods and the new sidelined by the rise in worship of the Drowned God, a deity of the sea.
The Rise of Valyria and the Flight of the Rhoynar
Around the same time, five thousand years ago and more, peaceful shepherds of a remote peninsula found dragons lairing in the Fourteen Fires, a great range of volcanoes stretching across the neck of their headland. The people of this land, Valyria, were easy prey for the harpy-worshipping slavers of the great Ghiscari Empire to the east, but using discipline and sorcery they were able to tame the dragons to their will. In five colossal wars they threw down the Ghiscari in ruin and defeat, eventually conquering all the lands of Slaver's Bay. The Valyrian Freehold grew in strength and power, with no king to rule them but a council of the Lord Freeholders who acted as equals.
Over the next four millennia (according to story and song), the Valyrian Freehold expanded in all directions, keeping the primitive tribesfolk of the great grass sea to the north in check and establishing great cities across the Valyrian hinterland, the Lands of the Long Summer. They conquered all the lands of Ghis, keeping the people under their rule, and began expanding along the western coastline, establishing colony-towns. In time they came to the mouth of a vast river, the Rhoyne, and there established the grand city of Volantis.
A thousand years ago (a date even supported by the maesters), the Valyrians invaded and seized the lands of the Rhoynar in force. Nymeria, warrior-queen of the Rhoynar, knew she could not prevail against dragons, so ordered a great exodus. Ten thousand ships of all sizes from all of the banks of the Rhoyne and its numerous tributaries evacuated tens of thousands of people and passed into the Summer Sea. Turning west, braving storms and pirates in the Stepstones, they made landfall on south-eastern coastline of Dorne.
At this time the numerous small Andal kingdoms of Westeros were just beginning a period of consolidation, as great kings and alliances began to absorb the smaller nations. But dry, arid Dorne remained a patchwork of shifting alliances and small, petty kingdoms. Prince Mors Martell of Sunspear saw in the Rhoynar - an organised, cohesive people - a great opportunity and made alliance with them, marrying Nymeria. With her forces, Martell overran and conquered all of Dorne. In the Rhoynar tradition he took the title 'Prince' rather than 'King'.
In the following centuries, the Valyrians expanded into the western coastal regions of the eastern continent. They conquered or established great cities on the islands of Lys, Tyrosh and Lorath, and on the mainland coasts founded Myr and Pentos. Inland, to the north-east of Pentos on tributaries of the Rhoyne, they established the grand cities of Norvos and Qohor. But as the Valyrians conquered, so they also displaced, and thousands of refugees found themselves without a home and struggling to survive. A secretive sect, the Moonsingers, organised them and led them to the far north-western tip of the continent, where the Narrow Sea met the Shivering Sea, and there, in a mist-shrouded lagoon defended by encircling mountains, they founded the Secret City, Braavos of the Hundred Isles. Over the following centuries, escaped slaves and refugees heard whispers and rumours of the Secret City and fled there in droves.
In Valyria, the maiden daughter of a nobleman named Aenar Targaryen experienced visions of doom and catastrophe. Moved by these visions, the Targaryen family removed themselves from the capital and moved to the far western territories with their dragons. They colonised a volcanic island in the Narrow Sea, west of Pentos, called Dragonstone, and took it as their own, as a base of operations and a trading post with mainland Westeros.
A century after the Targaryens colonised Dragonstone, the world changed in a single day of fire and destruction.
The Doom of Valyria
Later generations would call it the Doom of Valyria and claim it to be a judgement from the gods. The Fourteen Fires exploded with tremendous force, triggering a massive chain reaction of volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. Burning ash fell hundreds of miles away, smothering the city of Valyria to the south and laying waste to the Lands of the Long Summer to the north. The sea came flooding in, tearing Valyria away from the mainland and making it an island in demon-haunted waters. The Smoking Sea that formed around Valyria was frequently boiling hot to the touch, and the gases that rose from it killed those who breathed them in too much.
The work of five thousand years was undone in a single day. The Ghiscari broke away, establishing a new capital at New Ghis. The northern slave cities of Astapor, Yunkai and Meereen became independent, though retained their slave-trading habits and Ghiscari traditions. But it was in the west that the most chaos erupted, as the cities there fought for domination or independence. Chief amongst the conquerors was Volantis, which tried to take Valyria's place. When the other cities tried to break away, Volantis launched a military campaign to hold onto them, resulting in the Bleeding Years, a century of chaos and warfare. Volantis by itself was unable to hold the cities together and begged the Targaryens, the last holders of dragons in the western world, for aid. But the Targaryens ignored them. Braavos declared itself and allied with the other cities to help them establish their independence and Volantis was forced to abandon its claim to be the true heir to Valyria. Instead, the Nine Free Cities came into being, raucous and quarrelsome but also rapidly growing rich from trade that was no longer taxed by the Valyrians.
A new threat arose from the east. The peoples of the interior steppes had long been cowed by the Valyrians, but with them gone they grew more bold, forming great hordes or khalasars of tens of thousands of warriors. This people, the Dothraki, overran much of the interior of the continent and began launching raids against the surrounding lands. The Free Cities learned it was better to buy them off with gold and slaves than it was to fight them, aside from the Qohoriks who used an army of warrior-eunuchs, the Unsullied, to defeat the Dothraki in open battle. But for the most part, appeasement and peace was favoured over war.
On Dragonstone, the Targaryens marshalled their strength and considered their options. East lay the old, fractious provinces of Valyria, now divided and weakened by a century of warfare and blood. West lay the rich and divided nations of Westeros, displayed in Dragonstone on the Painted Table. Aegon Targaryen, whom history would call Aegon the Conqueror, and his sister-wives Visenya and Rhaenys made their decision and prepared their dragons.
The Seven Kingdoms
On Westeros, eight great kingdoms arose out of the hundreds of smaller nations: the Kingdom of the North, the Kingdom of the Iron Islands, the Kingdom of the Rock, the Kingdom of the Riverlands, the Kingdom of the Vale, the Kingdom of the Reach, the Storm Kingdom and the Kingdom of Dorne. These nations alternated between warring with one another and trading peacefully. Eventually, the Storm King won a great victory when he slew the last heirs of the River Kings, House Mudd, and conquered the Riverlands. But the Riverlands were too vast and too distant from his castle at Storm's End to hold effectively and when the ironborn began to invade from the coast, the Storm King's forces were pushed back. The ironborn overran and conquered the Riverlands and, as a sign of might, began building a vast castle on the northern shore of Gods Eye.
Harrenhal was an immense fortress, larger than any other in Westeros and maybe the world. The ironborn House Hoare spent vast amounts of gold and many lives in building it. It walls were tall, thick and impregnable, its stores immense. It was hard to assault, difficult to besiege, and King Harren the Black boasted it could not be taken by any army. But the very day it was completed was the same day that Aegon Targaryen and his sister-wives landed at the mouth of the Blackwater Rush, and their dragons had no fear of man's fortifications.