They held each other close and turned their backs upon the end.
The hills that split asunder and the black that ate the skies;
The flames that shot so high and hot that even dragons burned
Would never be the final sights that fell upon their eyes.
A fly upon a wall, the waves the sea wind whipped and churned
The city of a thousand years, and all that men had learned.
The Doom consumed it all alike, and neither of them turned.
For countless centuries, the city of Valyria dominated the world around it like none had before and none have since. The Valyrian Freehold, as it came to be known, stretched from the shores of Dragonstone to the west to the cities of Slaver’s Bay to the east. It overthrew the old Ghiscari Empire and spread its culture, its language and its traditions to all corners of the land. It did so on the backs of dragons that the Valyrians – so fair their hair was nearly white and eyes more purple than blue – had tamed with magic and strength. For the Valyrians knew how to use magic in everything they did: in metal works for making Valyrian steel and in battle for making wildfire. Then, in the turn of one day, it all collapsed. For the Doom of Valyria, a cataclysm so vast that it consumed the massive city, destroyed the Valyrians and their empire. The Valyrians, who never thought their empire could be toppled by any enemy or invader, found their destruction rising from underneath their feet in fire and smoke. Valyria was abandoned by all and it is considered a cursed land by most sailors and pirates. Those who go there do not return.
For the men and women vying for the Iron Throne, they live and fight and die in the ruins of the Doom of Valyria. The vacuum that its destruction created led to the formation of the Free Cities of Essos like Braavos, Pentos, Astapor, Yunka’I and Meereen among others. Each one of those cities tried at one point or another to claim Valyria’s mantle, but none had the power it had. They kept many of their traditions – such as slavery and using Old Valyrian as the language of the nobility – and established a pattern where none grew stronger than the rest. Until Danaerys Targaryen, of the blood of Valyria, upset all their balance and old traditions.
However, Dany is finding that the old ways of Slaver’s Bay are not so easy to undo. As she stares at the dead body of her friend and counselor, Barristan Selmy, her only desire is to lash out. And so she does, by arresting the leader of each of Meereen’s powerful families and feeding one of them to her chained dragons. But is that wise? Is that just? Twice have the Meereenese raised her wrath and twice she’s resorted to violence as response. Her hold on power is so tenuous that Daario can honestly suggest pulling back to the Pyramid and leave the rest of the city to its own until it can be pacified. Instead, she finally gives in to Hizdar’s plea to reopen the fighting pits as a means of honoring Meereen’s old ways while also choosing to marry Hizdar himself. If Dany is to be Queen, then she will find a way that ensures her reign isn’t short or bloody.
Short and bloody is a good way to describe the rule of House Bolton over the North. This isn’t surprising, given their sigil is a flayed man. Lord Roose is cruel and his son Ramsay is even worse. As they’ve sought to consolidate their power, they’ve betrayed their lieges and tortured their prisoners. For Roose, this is all a means to an end – cruelty will buy him obedience. This is why he had a miller living on his lands hung and chose to rape his bride when the couple were married without his blessing. For if they were allowed to go unpunished, what else would any other servant do? When the raped girl returned a year later with a crying infant, he was set to drown the child until he recognized in him his own features and accepted that it was his bastard son. His cruelty had given him a potential heir.
But if Roose is cruelty with a purpose, Ramsay is cruelty unhinged. He threatens his lovers. He tortures his people. And he encourages such foul cruelty on all those around him. As we’ve seen with Theon Greyjoy, he enjoys destroying people like a child would destroy little bugs. His sadism comes out in the dinner where he presents Reek to Sansa after his lover had revealed his presence to her. Forcing the former foster brother of Sansa to apologize for murdering her “brothers” is one thing. To do so while the man who betrayed her mother and murdered her brother Robb sit across from her is quite another. Roose chides Ramsay the only way he knows how: by threatening him with the unborn child growing in his wife’s belly — a potential rival and a truer heir to House Bolton’s gain than he. Ramsay’s sadism disappears long enough for Roose to wrangle him into the next mission for them: stopping Stannis Baratheon. For if Ramsay thinks they hold the North unopposed, he’s incredibly mistaken and that mistake could mean the end of House Bolton. They would fall just like the Starks did before them.
For his part, the self-proclaimed King Stannis has decided that he cannot delay his march south any longer. Winter will soon be upon them and, with it, will come the most dangerous enemy of all: the White Walkers. He must take Winterfell and overthrow the Bolton’s rule before the snows come or he and his army will freeze and starve. That’s why he’s willing to bring his Queen and his daughter along. If he fails, there will be no safe haven for them; not at Castle Black nor anywhere else. Unlike the rest of the combatants dreaming of greater power, he’s also aware of the White Walkers and has taken them seriously. So he recognizes in the fat son of Randyll Tarly an ally of some means. Samwell Tarly does not look like a warrior, but he did something no one else has. He killed a White Walker. In the son of his former enemy, Stannis hopes he can find the answer to how to save the Seven Kingdoms that he means to rule. Or his conquest of the North may be for nothing and he and they will all fall to the dead.
While Stannis marches towards Winterfell, the Night’s Watch is thrown northwards by their new Lord Commander, Jon Snow. The brothers sworn to guard the realms of men have to go rescue their former enemies, the wildlings, from their true enemy. But to set aside thousands of years of rancor and hate is as tough to do as setting aside thousands of years of tradition for Dany. The wildlings will not trust his plan if he doesn’t accompany Tormund and the Night’s Watch would rather they all freeze and die rather than letting them through The Wall. The dead friends, brothers one and all to those who remain, fuel their hate, but also their knowledge of wildling behavior. They will not kneel to any lord. They are as likely to continue pillaging and looting as they are at this point. But Jon knows what they continue to refuse to see: that any human living north of The Wall when the Walkers come will be another soldier in the great Army of the Dead the Night’s Watch is sworn to fight. When that battle is joined, it’ll be the White Walkers who fall or the Seven Kingdoms which die.
And if they could, the Night’s Watch could get a good glimpse of their possible future in the ruins of Old Valyria that Tyrion and Jorah sail through. Nothing but ashes and destruction remain of the once proud kingdom. Nothing moves through the toxic fumes but a giant dragon, unleashed and uncaged, and the poor souls struck down by greyscale. The Stone Men is what they’re called by those who see them, for the greyscale has covered their entire skin in its grey tone. Worse, however, is that the disease turns them into beings of anger and chaos; who lash out at anyone and anything coming near them. Poor Jorah has, in picking a path away from the pirates, taken a deadlier road. Though he’s able to fight them off and rescue himself and Tyrion away, it comes at a cost. One of the Stone Men has passed his disease onto him and it’s only a question of when, not if, it will cost Jorah Mormont his life.
It’s in such moments that the fate of nations is determined: a lovestruck knight carrying a deadly disease; a desperate queen looking to make peace; a band of warriors angrily forced into action. It’s the unseen hand of fate or of randomness that moves everyone into position. Or maybe there is no hand and it’s all up to each one’s actions coming together and letting the pieces fall where they may. Maybe it’s just random chaos, unorganized and deadly that is moving all these pieces. For the Valyrians, who thought their rule would never end, one such random piece dropped on their chessboard and destroyed them. But in their destruction, the chaos that ensued left one Valyrian stronghold alive: the island of Dragonstone, from which Aegon Targaryen would one day rise to conquer the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. Chaos can be the end of so much, but also leave the opportunity for new things to come to life.