To the south of Essos and far to the south-east of the Seven Kingdoms lies a savage, desperate and highly dangerous land. This is a world alien to that of men, a land of fierce, unrelenting heat, endless jungles, vast deserts and savage creatures, not to mention plagues that erupt without warning and kill indiscriminately. This is the remote, mostly unexplored and forbidding third continent of the known world and the most southerly location we know of: Sothoryos.
Sothoryos is located some 2,600 miles south-east of the eastern tip of Dorne, and about 750 miles south of central Essos. The far northern coast of Sothoryos lies south of Ghiscar and Slaver’s Bay, and south-east of Valyria. The continent is bordered by the Summer Sea to the north and presumably west, and the Jade Sea to the north-east. The southern and eastern-most boundaries of the continent have not yet been measured by any reliable reports.
The explored portion of Sothoryos measures some 1,750 miles from east to west and 1,100 miles from north to south. Despite its proximity to Essos, the continent has never been thoroughly mapped. Ancient Qartheen maps depicted Sothoryos as an island twice the size of Great Moraq, but this was clearly guesswork. The Ghiscari undertook surveys of the coast and concluded that Sothoryos was comparable to Westeros in size, suggesting a north-south oriented continent 3,000 miles or more in length. Later, the Valyrians undertook an exploration of the interior of the continent, flying on dragons far over the interior and to the south. Unfortunately this mission seems to have been more for amusement than for the purposes of exacting topographical exploration, to the frustration of many maesters. The Valyrian exploration suggested a continent comparable in size to Essos, meaning truly vast and apparently without end. The Qartheen have undertaken more recent explorations of the eastern coast of Sothoryos but have never found the bottom of the continent, whilst the Summer Islanders have likewise explored the west coast in their formidable swan ships, but have declined to share their discoveries with outsiders.
The northern portion of Sothoryos straddles the equator, which maesters believe should be the hottest part of the entire world. This region is covered in jungle and woodlands. The temperature in Sothoryos is stifling, the jungle moist and humid beyond belief, to the point where simply walking around is an incredible effort. The attraction of shedding clothes and going bare-chested is clear, but is also extremely dangerous, due to ticks, blood-sucking leeches and parasites capable of dropping from trees and burrowing into the skin. More than one exploration of the continent has ended in madness, plague, dehydration, starvation and death.
Dense jungle covers most of the explored portion of Sothoryos, but the foliage does break and fall back in the centre of the landmass, where the great River Zamoyos meets the Summer Sea in a vast, many-branched delta. The source of the Zamoyos is unknown: several expeditions launched deep upriver by the Ghiscari simply failed to return. The most successful mission reported that the river runs south for some 700 miles before opening into a large and substantial lake, which is fed by several lesser waterways. The lake is massive, more than 300 miles long and more than 50 miles wide. The Zamoyos is assumed to continue at the southern end of the lake, where a wide river extends south for another hundred miles or so. However at that point the relatively light jungle of the north gives way to the horrific landscape known as the Green Hell, so the explorers turned back and wisely lived to tell the tale.
The Zamoyos Delta is the most habitable part of the mainland of Sothoryos, although it is still hot, humid and unpleasant, with marshlands and swamps extending for dozens of miles along the coast. Crocodiles dwarfing even the formidable lizard-lions of the Neck in Westeros can be found in these waters. One part of the coast is elevated slightly above the rest, forming an effective island between several arms of the Zamoyos which is marginally more tolerable than the land around it. It was here, over five thousand years ago, that the Ghiscari founded the city of Zamettar. The city was the springboard for the Ghiscari exploration of the continent, but very few other colonisation efforts succeeded, apart from the settling of Gorosh to the east and Gorgai to the west.
Still, Zamettar endured, possibly more through stubbornness than sense. The city finally fell during the Fourth Ghiscari War, when the dragons of Valyria, escorting a fleet, captured the city in battle. The Valyrians were initially pleased with their conquest and planting their banner on a new continent, but rapidly discovered what the Ghiscari had before them, that the southern continent was a land of great promise but almost lethal danger. The Valyrians strove to tame Sothoryos for a time, the legendary explorer Jaenaera Belaerys taking her dragon Terrax on a daring three-year exploration of the lands to the south, but even she failed to find any sign of civilisation, or even the far end of the continent. Eventually the Valyrians abandoned Zamettar as more trouble than it was worth, the last dragonlords departing circa 1700 BC. The city was briefly repopulated around 700 BC by Nymeria and her Rhoynar followers, but they found the land far too hostile and they soon moved on, set on the course that would lead them to Dorne.
Wyvern Point is a peninsula in the far north-east of Sothoryos. This region extends along the Jade Sea and Summer Sea, with the island of Lesser Moraq located just off the coast. Wyvern Point is also covered in jungle and swamps, but is so-named for the large numbers of wyverns located within the treeline. Wyverns are smaller and far less dangerous relatives of dragons, but they are still extremely dangerous creatures, best-avoided.
Wyvern Point is lacking in interesting features apart from one excellent habourage. The Ghiscari established a port on the harbour, Gorosh, which they used as a penal colony during the days of the Old Empire. However, like so many other colonies in Sothoryos, it could not survive the harsh climate and harsher inhabitants, and was eventually abandoned.
Located in the far north-west of Sothoryos, Basilisk Point is a peninsula forming the west coast of a very wide (200 mile) bay. Basilisk Point is – marginally – more habitable than the jungles to the south and east, and there have been several attempts to colonise it. The Valyrians settled a colony in this region but it was soon destroyed. The Rhoynar founded two towns during Nymeria’s flight from Essos, but both were sacked by corsairs and the people taken into slavery.
Yeen is a ruined city, located 300 miles upriver from Zamettar. It is a very curious ruin, however, consisting of buildings built out of a curious black stone which is oily and disturbing to the touch. The blocks are enormous, each requiring a dozen elephants or more to move, but seem to have been cut, lifted and fused together by means unknown. Even more curious is the fact that the city has no discernible point of origin. It appears to be older, by far, than any human city in the known world, far older than even Old Ghis or the oldest stones of Moat Cailin or the oldest cities in Yi Ti or Sarnor. Only Asshai, the origins of which are likewise mysterious, can challenge Yeen as the oldest city in the world.
Every attempt to resettle Yeen has resulted in horror. Located far inland, with only the Zamoyos providing any kind of easy approach to the city, the jungle surrounds it on all sides, although, curiously, the jungle has never fully reclaimed it. But sickness, plague, heat and the dangerous inhabitants of Sothoryos, the so-called “Brindled Men”, are a constant threat to the ruins. Every Ghiscari and Valyrian attempt to claim the ruins failed. The last known attempt was by the Rhoynar, who founded a new settlement amongst the ruins of Yeen. The settlement seemed to flourish for several months but then went quiet. A ship sent by Nymeria to investigate found that the settlement had been abandoned, every man, woman and child living there simply gone without a trace.
The Green Hell and Southern Sothoryos
Beyond Yeen and the lake of the upper Zamoyos, the jungle abruptly becomes thicker, hotter and more savage. This region is called the Green Hell, and makes the jungles to the north – which are still extraordinarily dangerous – look safe and inviting by comparison. The Green Hell is packed with dangerous insects, snakes big enough to kill wolves, the feared vampire bats (which can drain the blood out of a fully-grown man in minutes) and is the home of the Brindled Men, the immensely large, strong and vicious humanoid inhabitants of Sothoryos. They are distinctly non-human, and would be considered a myth save for the occasional specimen who shows up in the fighting pits of Slaver’s Bay. The Brindled Men are intelligent, after a fashion, but display a love for violence, killing and savage perversity that is deeply disturbing.
The landscape of the Green Hell is unmapped in detail since no sane person would venture far into it, and every attempt which has been made has ended in slaughter. This danger seems to extend to the coasts, with ships that make landfall generally not surviving to return home again. The only way past the Green Hell is by air, with the Valyrian expedition led by Jaenaera Belaerys on dragonback passing far overhead and managing to just about traverse the region before landing to the south. This suggests that the Green Hell might be over a thousand miles across, given the known distances that dragons can traverse with riders before requiring rest.
South of the Green Hell, far beyond the edge of any reliable map, the jungles of Sothoryos seem to terminate at a titanic series of mountain ranges. Beyond this lies a region of utterly vast deserts, dwarfing the Red Waste of Essos and the the deep deserts of Dorne in size. Barren and lifeless, this desert region extends in all directions for tremendous distances. At the fringes of the desert the Valyrians found more mountains and, more jungles (presumably giving way to more temperate forests in the south, far away from the equator). Three years into their mission, the Valyrians gave up the effort and turned for home.
The Basilisk Isles
Lying off the north-western coast of Sothoryos lies the Basilisk Isles, very occasionally called the Corsair Isles. These islands are so-called for the basilisks which can be founded in the wild. The forbidding name is also apt for the pirates and corsairs who infest the islands.
The islands extend in an arc for roughly 800 miles, from the Isle of Flies in the far west to Ax Isle in the far east.
The largest and most southerly of the islands is the Isle of Tears, which is roughly 100 miles wide. This island consists of steep valleys, studded with dark bogs and rugged flint hills. On the south coast is a good anchorage, where, well over five thousand years ago (according to tradition), the Ghiscari founded the city of Gorgai. The Valyrians seized the city in the Third Ghiscari War and renamed it Gogossos, using it as a penal colony for centuries. After the Doom of Valyria, Gogossos grew powerful and rich on the slave trade, corsairs seizing captives from nearby Naath and the mainland of Sothoryos to sell in their thousands. After the fall of Essaria to the Dothraki, Gogossos was nicknamed the “Tenth Free City” and may have even become that in truth. But, seventy-seven years after the Doom of Valyria, the Red Death erupted on the Isle of Tears. Nine out of ten of the population was wiped out by a horrific plague and the city of Gogossos and the entire island was abandoned.
North and east of the Isle of Tears is the Isle of Toads. This island is inhabited by strange people with fishlike faces and webbed fingers and toes. There are many small villages and towns on the island, but the strangest feature is the Toad Stone, a forty-foot-tall statue made of the same black, oily stone found in Yeen. The statue represents a toad of unpleasant aspect. It is considered cursed and shunned by outsiders, explaining how the isle and its people survive despite being surrounded by pirates and corsairs.
North of the Isle of Tears is Talon, the second-largest of the islands, so-named because it resembles a claw from above, 150 miles long with several peninsulas and headlands extending into the surrounding sea. It is the home of many of the pirates, with the largest pirate stronghold, Barter Beach, located on its shores. It is a rough and ready place, very dangerous to visit, but profitable for those with the stomach and the will. To the west, on the open sea, lies the Isle of Flies, presumably named for the insects which crowd the island in numbers. The island is the home of a rough alliance of pirates, the Brotherhood of Bones, which troubles the Summer Sea west to the Summer Islands and north to the Free Cities.
East of Talon lies the Howling Mountain, an island consisting of a single tall peak. There are several pirate bases on its shores. North-east lies Skull Island, the home of the most savage pirates who sacrifice captives to a dark god and collect their skulls in vast piles. Finally, in the east lies Ax Isle, one of the most heavily-fortified pirate isles. The Qartheen raider Xandarro Xhoare established a base on the island a century after the Red Death and built a new, formidable stronghold out of the strange black stones found on the Isle of Toads (and several of the other islands in smaller numbers). This stronghold still stands and is still frequently used to export terror and misery to the surrounding seas.
Naath, the Isle of Butterflies, lies to the west of the Basilisks. More than 200 miles long, it is only 300 miles west of the Isle of Flies and about 350 miles from the Sothoryosi mainland. The island is the home of the Naathi, the Peaceful People, a race of men and women who believe in accepting their fate, never making war, and worshipping their god, the Lord of Harmony.
Naath would certainly have been despoiled and depopulated millennia ago if it wasn’t for a special force protecting it. The island is home to millions of butterflies and caterpillars, who weave the fine silks the Naathi used to sell to traders to take across the known world. However, these are also the source of an infection, the butterfly plague. The plague is unusual in that it doesn’t strike immediately, instead building up for several months before striking. In ancient times, the Ghiscari seized Naath three times before their occupying force was wiped out by the plague. Slavers, corsairs, Valyrians and a sellsword company have at one time or another “conquered” the island only to be wiped out in less than a year. Knowledge of the curse of the butterfly plague became widespread and Valyria warned its sailors never to land there. This resulted in the island being left alone for centuries and possibly millennia. The Naathi, of course, are immune to this plague.
However, it also became known that the plague struck briefly and only after a long period of exposure. As a result, following the Doom of Valyria, the corsairs returned in force. They only allowed their crews to land for a single night, commanding them to take as many captives as possible in brief raids before taking them off. The Naathi responded by withdrawing from the coasts into the interior of the islands. Bolder raids followed, but fear of the plague limits how far the pirates and invaders are prepared to go before turning back to their ships. Naath is still periodically raided, as after long periods without raids the Naathi tend to drift back to the shores, but many of its people remain safe in the deep interior of the island.
Almost 600 miles to the west of Naath lies another land of – mostly – peace, plenty and beauty: the Summer Islands.
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The continent of Essos was once home to a long-lived and remarkably enduring people and civilisation: the Qaathi. They are mentioned in the oldest legends of the east, contemporaries of the Fisher Queens and the Great Empire of the Dawn, older even than the first flowering of Old Ghis. The lived in the western shadow of the Bone Mountains, ranging far and wide across the eastern Grasslands and along the banks of the Skahazadhan.
At some point in the remote past they were displaced from their ancestral homelands, forced south and east by the rise of Sarnor, Old Ghis and the first nomadic incursions by the ancient ancestors of the Dothraki. They found a new homeland, located south and west of the Bones. This was a vast stretch of countryside, fed by numerous rivers and running along the coast of the verdant Summer Sea. Here, on an excellent harbour on the straits linking the Summer Sea to the Jade Sea, they founded what would become the greatest of all their settlements: Qarth, the Queen of Cities.
The Qartheen built other cities, including Qolahn, Qarkash and Yhos, along with numerous towns in the interior. A network of roads was constructed, linking the Qaathi cities with the Ghiscari Empire to the west, the Sarnori city-states (and, later, Lhazar) to the north-west and the great Great Empire and its successor, Yi Ti, to the east along the coast. In the wake of the Long Night the Patrimony of Hyrkoon was founded and expanded west of the Bone Mountains, establishing Yinishar at the mouth of the Steel Pass on the northern fringes of Qaathi territory. It is possible that conflict may have erupted, but instead the two powers chose trade. When Ghis was laid low by Valyria, the Qaathi welcomed the dragonlords as trading partners and potential allies. The Valyrians had little interest in the Qaathi, aside from ensuring that they did not attempt to tax or levy Valyrian ships passing through the Jade Gates on their way to the fabled east.
Several centuries before the Doom of Valyria, the Qaathi noticed that the lands were becoming less fertile. The inland salt lake to the north-east, which the Dothraki forebears already called the Poison Sea, may have been responsible for this, but some believe that the repeated toll of long winters and long summers had simply sapped the life out of the land. Whatever the cause, the Qaathi heartlands began to dry up and then experienced desertification. In a remarkably swift period of time the Qaathi had to begin abandoning the interior, drifting south towards the coast.
This would have likely been a more leisurely and natural exodus, but then the Doom of Valyria took place and the Dothraki rode out of the east to destroy mighty Sarnor. Several Dothraki khalasars, seeing that the chances of booty in the west were reduced due to numbers, instead swept south into the Qaathi lands. They obliterated several cities, reducing them to Vaes Orvik (“City of the Whip”, due to the number of slaves taken in the sacking) and Vaes Shirosi (“City of Scorpions”). They also destroyed mighty Qohlan, renaming the ruins Vaes Qosar (“City of Spiders”). Vaes Tolorro (“The City of Bones”) was likewise abandoned, but its walls and many of its buildings are said by some explorers to still be intact, suggesting it was evacuated ahead of the Dothraki advance or was spared and later abandoned due to the encroaching desert.
The Dothraki turned back from the coast, sparing Qarth, Qarkash and Yhos. The reasons for this are unclear, but the Dothraki were far from home and the horse-riders feared the deep desert to the east. Thanks to the blood spilled as well as the colours of the sands, it was given a new name: the Red Waste.
The Red Waste
The Red Waste is the largest desert in the known world, although some ancient Valyrian records claim that much vaster areas of wasteland and desert exist further south in Sothoryos. The desert measures at least 1,000 miles across from north to south and around 800 miles across from east to west, although its size is debatable. The desert does not have sharp margins, with instead the land very gradually turning more desolate and barren from the fringes inwards.
Still, the borders of the Red Waste are held very roughly as the hills of south-eastern Lhazar to the north-west, the Poison Sea to the north-east, the Bone Mountains to the east and the coast to the south. To the west the land becomes more fertile until it opens into the sheep-farming country of southern Lhazar, beyond which lies the Ghiscari hills and mountains.
The Red Waste is dry, barren and virtually uninhabitable. A few intact wells can still be found, particularly in the ruins of some of the towns and cities sacked by the Dothraki or abandoned to the desert, but crossing the Waste is a formidable and difficult and task. Its presence, along with the possibility of encountering hostile Dothraki khalasars to its north, has routed a lot of trade and travel by sea to the south instead, through the Straits of Qarth.
The Jade Gates
The Jade Gates or Straits of Qarth (although some suggest that the two names are not synonymous, the Gates instead being the narrowest part of the gap, which is less than 30 miles wide) divide the Summer Sea to the west from the Jade Sea to the east and the continent of Essos to the north from the island of Great Moraq to the south. More than four hundred miles long, they form one of the busiest waterways in the known world, with ships from the Summer Islands, the Free Cities, Slaver’s Bay and even remote Westeros (which is located more than 3,900 miles to the west) passing through on their way to the Empire of Yi Ti, the islands of the Jade Sea and, of course, remote, foreboding and threatening Asshai-by-the-Shadow.
The straits are controlled by Qarth, which has a monopoly – or stranglehold – on all travel and trade along their route. Qarth once held the strait with a lighter touch, fearing the power of Valyria to the west and Yi Ti to the east, but with Valyria destroyed in the Doom and Yi Ti more concerned with internal affairs, the Qartheen built a huge fleet to enforce their control of the straits. They conquered the island of Qal in the middle of the strait and fortified it with two fortress-harbours. The Qartheen exact a toll on all ships passing through the Straits, giving them immense riches and allowing them to maintain their city.
Qarth is one of the greatest and largest cities in the known world. Only Volantis, Meereen and the cities of Yi Ti can rival it in population and power, and only Asshai is known to be significantly larger (although far less populous). The city is built around an excellent harbour midway along the Straits of Qarth, on the very Jade Gates where the coasts of Essos and Moraq come closest together. On a very clear day the Moraqi coast can be just discerned as a distant line on the horizon.
Qarth is defended by its famed Triple Walls, three enormous, semi-circular fortifications of 30, 40 and 50 feet in height. The walls are inscribed with images of animals, war and lovemaking, respectively. The Triple Walls are one of the man-made Wonders of the World as noted by Lomas Longstrider.
The city is noted for its wide thoroughfares, with great statues of Qaathi and Qartheen heroes standing on top of marble blocks. There are fountains in almost every square, many of they carved into the shape of beasts such as dragons and lions. Dominating the skyline is the Hall of a Thousand Thrones, from where the Pureborn of Qarth dispense laws and justice. Far less ostentatious – but far more feared – is the House of the Undying, sometimes called the Palace of Dust, which is the home of the Warlocks of Qarth. Numerous large estates are located within the walls, one of the most notable of which belongs to the merchant lord Xaro Xhoan Daxos. Three merchant guilds – the Thirteen, the Tourmaline Brotherhood and the Ancient Guild of Spicers – control trade in the city, as well as skirmishing with one another for influence and power. Other notable locations in the city include the Temple of Memory, Warlock’s Way and the Garden of Gehane.
Qarth is an enormous city but also a vulnerable one: the landward side of the city gives way very quickly to the Red Waste. Although the Waste protects the city from the Dothraki better than any walls, it also makes travelling to the city overland difficult. It also prevents a hinterland of farms and market towns from being established to help feed the city. As a result Qarth has to import its food by sea from the coast of Moraq and from other cities to the west and east, as well as by caravan from places such as Lhazar. This is a vulnerable supply chain; if the city was blockaded by sea, it would starve in short order. The Qartheen maintain a huge fleet which guards against this eventuality; no other power on the Summer or Jade Sea has a large enough fleet to challenge them (Yi Ti certainly could if it chose, but it would take years to build).
Qarth’s direct control extends to Qal, a hundred-mile-long island in the east of the Straits of Qarth, and the cities of Qarkash and Port Yhos. Qarkash is located 300 miles to the west of Qarth, and Port Yhos a further 350 miles west of Qarkash. The two settlements provide food and supplies to Qarth itself, as well as acting as waystops for ships less willing to brave the deeps of the Summer Sea as they head west or east.
Great Moraq is the largest island in the known world (possibly save Ulthos, the status of which remains debatable). 900 miles long from north to south and 450 miles wide at its widest extent in the north, the island acts as a massive barrier between the Summer Sea and the Jade Sea. It is separated from the continent of Essos 30 miles to the north by the Straits of Qarth and Jade Gates, and from the continent of Sothoryos 400 miles to the south-west by the Cinnamon Straits, which are packed with islands large and small.
Great Moraq is relatively fertile and green compared to the Red Waste located across the straits to the north. The northern half of the island is covered by rolling fields and low hills, where many farms spread which feed both the island’s population and the city of Qarth to the north. The north of the island is dominated by Faros, a large city-state located on the west coast near the mouth of a great river. Faros is a notable trade settlement, but it is less powerful than Qarth; prevailing winds and currents carry ships clockwise around the Jade Sea on the the great “trader’s circle”, which means that ships have no choice but to enter the Jade Sea via Qarth, which has a monopoly on transit, but can come out via Faros, Vahar to the south or braving more westerly routes through the islands closer to Sothoryos. Faros thus lacks Qarth’s monopoly on travel. The people of Faros worship a god known as the “Stone Cow”, and have erected a massive statue to this deity in the city. It is an impressive, if slightly incongruous, monument.
The southern half of Moraq is covered in dense jungles and forests. At the southern tip of the island, more than 650 miles from Faros, is Port Moraq, a thriving and bustling trade city.
Moraq’s west coast is more densely populated than the eastern; due to currents and prevailing winds there is no call for ships to pass along the east coast. The island is reasonably populous but not rich in resources. It was conquered by the Empire of Yi Ti under Jar Joq, one of the sea-green God Emperors, but there was relatively little profit in doing so and many of the Moraqi simply faded away into the jungle until the invaders abandoned the effort.
Other Islands of Note
The island and city of Vahar lies about 170 miles south of Faros. It is an important centre of the world spice trade and gives the Cinnamon Straits their name. South-west of Vahar lies Lesser Moraq. A sizeable island (270 miles long, 150 miles wide), Lesser Moraq is covered in dense jungle and does not appear to be inhabited, at least not be civilised men. Less than seventy miles separates Lesser Moraq from Wyvern Point on the far north-eastern coast of Sothoryos. Although the waters between the island and the mainland appear to be traversable, ships usually stay well to the east out of fear of the plagues and savage creatures said to inhabit the southern continent.
An even larger island lies about a hundred miles to the south of Lesser Moraq, but curiously it has never been given a name (at least one that has stuck). Beyond this island the cost of Sothoryos extends southwards (and possibly somewhat eastwards) for, allegedly, thousands of miles, with both the ancient Valyrians and the more contemporary Qartheen claiming to have never found a bottom to the continent.
200 miles south-east of Port Moraq lies Zabhad, another trading city located on the north coast of the Isle of Elephants. According to sailors, the isle is ruled by a shan from the so-called Palace of Ivory. Elephants, unsurprisingly, are commonly found on the island.
600 miles to the north, located some 250 miles off the coast of Great Moraq in the western reaches of the Jade Sea, is the Isle of Whips. The island is a noted slaver trading post and a waystop for ships heading east; the coast of Yi Ti lies only 300 miles to the north-east.
South and west of this region lies a land with a name that means only one thing: fear. The southern continent of Sothoryos is a land of burning deserts, thick jungles, boiling plagues, shrieking monsters and unrelenting mystery.
East of the Dothraki Sea lies the edge of the known world, where true and reliable knowledge gives way to increasingly outlandish fables and legends. Part of the reason for this is a towering barrier that splits the continent of Essos in two: the Bone Mountains. Bisecting the continent from north to south, the Bones stand as a daunting barrier to travel and commerce. Difficult to traverse and unrelentingly hostile, the Bones force a lot of travel to the south, through the Jade Sea, and to the north, through the island nation of Ibben.
Ibben is a kingdom which sprawls across several islands in the Shivering Sea and colonies on the northern coast of Essos. In ancient times, when Ibben was ruled by a God-King, the nation controlled a vast swathe of territory extending far to the east and west, reaching as far as the Lorathi islands and the Axe. Ibben’s power has waned. Since the Doom of Valyria, Ibben has been ruled by the Shadow Council and has pursued a policy of mercantile trade.
The homeland of the Ibbenese is Ib, one of the largest islands in the known world. Located off the north coast of Essos, near the Dothraki Sea, Ib measures 600 miles from the north-east to the south-west. It is about 300 miles across from the north-west to south-east, but with several peninsulas extending further into the Shivering Sea. The mainland of Essos is about 200 miles to the south. The island is mountainous, particularly in the north, and the Ibbenese have great mines built into the hills where they mine and smelt gold, iron and tin. There are also extensive forests, allowing the Ibbenese to trade in timber, animal pelts and amber. Giants are said to have once lived on Ib, but were hunted to extinction. Shaggy unicorns, kin to those on distant Skagos, may also live on Ib.
There are two major cities on Ib. Ib Nor, on the north coast, is home to many whalers and traders. The Port of Ibben on the south coast is the largest port on the Shivering Sea east of Braavos. It is a bustling trade city where whalers, merchants and travellers mingle. Foreigners are permitted to stay in the Port’s trade quarter, but are not allowed in the rest of the city, or the island, without the protection of an Ibbenese host. The Ibbenese who live inland, in the hills and forests, are said to be deeply suspicious of outsiders.
The Ibbenese are the greatest and most prolific whalers in the known world. Their whaling ships can be found as far east as the Thousand Islands and as far west as the Bay of Seals off the north-eastern coast of Westeros, three thousand miles away. The Ibbenese are also among the finest sailors in the world, braving storms that even the ironborn (who live in more clement seas) would balk at. North of Ibben lies nothing but empty grey seas, often wracked by storms, until the endless ice walls of the White Waste appear, over 1,500 miles north of the island. Vast ice floes and icebergs sometimes pass close to Ib, and the Ibbenese treat the northern polar waters with respect.
Given the eastern location of Ib and the undoubted Ibbenese proficiency at sea, some maesters theorise that the Ibbenese must have explored the eastern Shivering Sea in much greater detail than any other Essosi or Westerosi sailors (even the mighty Corlys Velaryon, the Sea Snake, had to turn back a thousand miles or so to the east of Ib), and may even have reached the legendary far eastern coast of the continent. If so, the Ibbenese have refused to release charts of these waters or confirm what other kingdoms and peoples may exist in that direction.
300 miles to the south-east of Ib lies the island of Far Ib. Almost 250 miles long and about 100 miles wide, Far Ib is dominated by an inland mountain chain which the Ibbenese have extensively mined. The small port of Ib Sar exports these minerals back to Ib and to other markets along the Shivering Sea.
South of Ibben, across the Bay of Whales and on the mainland, lies the small port town of New Ibbish. New Ibbish is located on a passable harbour at the northern tip of a small peninsula, which the Ibbenese have walled off from the rest of the continent. The Ibbenese had once colonised more of this coastline, including the much larger city of Ibbish, but that was destroyed by the Dothraki during the Century of Blood.
The Realm of Jhogwin and the White Mountains
The Bone Mountains are the tallest and most extensive mountain range in the known world. They extend from north to south for just over 2,000 miles and, including lesser chains and foothills, are well over 300 miles thick for much of that length (in some areas, closer to 500 miles)
The great Bone Mountains begin at the Shivering Sea, although some maesters theorise that the mountains may continue under the waves, with Ib Sar directly to the north being the protrusion above the waters of some of the taller peaks. The northern-most Bones are known as the Krazaaj Zasqa, the White Mountains, for these mountains are covered in snow even during the hottest and longest winters. The tallest peaks in the range – and maybe the world – may be found here, peaks that dwarf even the Giant’s Lance of Westeros. Winds howl through the peaks, glaciers can be found nestling in the highest valleys and the land is desolate and unrelentingly hostile.
According to myth the Jhogwin, or stone giants, once dominated the northern Bones and ranged both west and east, hunting both the ancestors of the Dothraki and the Jogos Nhai. Gharak Squint-Eye, a great jhattar of the Jogos Nhai, is said to have unified the zorse-riders and destroyed the last of the Jhogwin at the Battle of the Howling Hills some centuries before the Doom of Valyria. The White Mountains themselves are believed to be uninhabited, but the Howling Hills to the south-east, at the north-western fringes of the Plains of the Jogos Nhai, are home to bandits and exiles.
The northern Bone Mountains are divided by a great pass, through which a road has been driven. This road extends west to Vaes Dothraki and south-east to Yi Ti. The Steel Road is so-called because of the great battles that have raged along its length. Several times, Dothraki khalasars have braved the pass to assault the great city of Kayakayanaya which sits athwart the trade route, but each time they have been thrown back. The Jogos Nhai have also assaulted the city from the east, seeking revenge for their ancient losses to the Patrimony of Hyrkoon. The city’s massive basalt walls have thrown back countless assaults from both directions (but never both simultaneously, the only eventuality which might trouble the imposing fortress-city) without falling.
Kayakayanaya consists of towering black basalt walls studded with black iron and yellow bones. The city is ruled by the Great Fathers and defended by formidable warrior-women, since the Hyrkoonish religion states that only those who can give birth are allowed to take life in battle. Peaceful traders are allowed to pass through Kayakayanaya (after paying suitable tribute) but are carefully watched to make sure they are not working to undermine the city from within. Kayakayanaya is not the only Hyrkoonish survivor-city in the mountains, but it is located far closer to the centre of both Dothraki and Jogos Nhai power and is thus the most commonly assailed.
The Great Sand Sea
South of the Steel Road lies the central Bones. Less wild than the White Mountains, but still tall and utterly formidable, the mountains are fringed with fertile foothills to the west, through which the Dothraki race their horses. The eastern side of the mountains is more dramatic, with the mountains falling through ragged hills into a desolate land of canyons and deserts: the Great Sand Sea. The Great Sand Sea was once a jumbled lowland area of lakes, rivers and fertile fields, divided into small kingdoms and city-states. This was the heartland of the Patrimony of Hyrkoon, a great nation-state which arose in the aftermath of the Long Night. According to legend, the hero Azhor Azhai, Hyrkoon in the local language, came from this region and it was here that he forged the sword Lightbringer before taking it into battle against the darkness, eventually proving victorious and lifting the Long Night.
The accuracy of this story is uncertain, but it is clear that the legend left behind a powerful legacy, with the Patrimony of Hyrkoon surviving for thousands of years before the Dry Times descended. The lakes and rivers dried up and became a wasteland. The Patrimony collapsed, its people retreating behind the walls of Kayakayanaya, Samyriana and Bayasabhad.
The Great Sand Sea measures approximately 1,000 miles from north to south and is around 400 miles wide at its widest point. The ruins of ancient cities can be found in its depths, along with river beds. Maesters believe that at one time the Great Sand Sea may have been an inland sea. By the time of the Long Night it had already dried up somewhat into many smaller lakes and seas, but since that time has become completely barren. Similar processes may also be responsible for the Shrinking Sea to the east and the Red Waste and the disappearance of the Silver Sea to the west, across the Bones.
The Great Sand Sea is mostly uninhabited, but for the bold there is one track that leads from Samyriana to Trader Town on the borders of Yi Ti, right across the heart of the wasteland. This route is not recommended, but brave merchants desperate to shave weeks off their travel times often make the attempt, with the survivors greatly enriched.
Samyriana and Bayasabhad
South of the Steel Road and Kayakayanaya lies its sister fortress-cities of Samyriana. Samyriana is less immediately-imposing than Kayakayanaya with the bulk of its defences oriented against an attack by the Dothraki to the west; the Jogos Nhai lie too far to the north-east across the Great Sand Sea to be as imminent a threat. Samyriana lacks Kayakayanaya’s formidable basalt and iron walls, instead being built directly into the mountain rock itself.
Squatting across the the Stone Road 550 miles south of Kayakayanaya, Samyriana remains a rich and notable settlement, even if its golden age as the greatest city on the Silk Route is millennia in the past. At one time trade caravans made their way from Slaver’s Bay, the Free Cities and even Westeros east through Samyriana towards the Patrimony of Hyrkoon and the Empire of Yi Ti. Although longer than the sea route via the Jade Sea, it was safer and less threatened by pirates. The Doom of Valyria made this route even more appealing, but the emergence of the Dothraki, the destruction of the Patrimony and the spread of the Red Waste combined to make it a less practical route. The Dothraki destroyed Samyriana’s partner-city of Yinishar which guarded the western entrance to the Steel Pass, making the route feel even less secure.
Further south lies the Sand Road. This pass splits the central Bone Mountains from the far southern end of the range, the Dry Bones. Bayasabhad, 450 miles south of Samyriana, is located near the eastern end of the Sand Road Pass. Like its two northern sister-cities, Bayasabhad guards its route through the mountains and is a formidable fortress, but the city is also less martial. The Red Waste has effectively sealed off the trade routes to the west and is never troubled by the Dothraki, whilst to the south-east lies the more peaceable neighbour of Yi Ti. Roads lead south to Asabhad, a port on the far north-western Jade Sea, and east to Tiqui and the northern fringes of the Yi Ti Empire.
The Dry Bones fall into the sea in another jumbled mass of peaks and islands, with Qal and the other islands of the Straits of Qarth (or Jade Gates) potentially being an extension of the mountain range under the waves.
To the south and west of the Dry Bones lies a forbidding land which even the Dothraki fear to enter: the Red Waste and, beyond it, the rich lands of Great Moraq and the Jade Sea.
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East of the Free City of Qohor, beyond the great forest that gives the city its name, the terrain abruptly changes. A flat plain extends to the horizon, broken only by low hills in the north but completely covered in grass. This grassplain extends east for two and a half thousand miles, almost rivalling the distance from the Wall to the Summer Sea in Westeros, before abruptly ending in the foothills of the towering Bone Mountains. This flat plain, when viewed from the mountains or hills, looks like a green sea, which gives it its name.
The term “Dothraki Sea” is a relatively new one, displacing the simple name “The Grasslands” that used to apply to this vast region and was used by the Valyrians, the Ghiscari and the ancient Qaathi for millennia. The term came into use between three and four centuries ago when Khal Mengo united the disparate and scattered tribes of the far eastern Grasslands and swept west in a crusade of blood and fire. In the Century of Blood the Dothraki destroyed no less than twenty-one major cities, tore down the ancient kingdom of Sarnor and destroyed the Valyrian cities of Essaria, Hazdahn Mo and Ghardaq. Their advance was turned back at the Battle of Qohor and the expansion of the Red Waste in the south. During the Bleeding Years the Dothraki established an area of control bigger than the Empire of Yi Ti and almost rivalling the Seven Kingdoms in size.
For outsiders, the Dothraki Sea can appear featureless, a monotonous slog of never-ending grass that has to be endured for the weeks it takes to cross to Vaes Dothrak. But the Dothraki have many names for different parts of the sea, and for the ruins that dot its expanse.
Ruins of Valyria
In the far west of the Dothraki Sea, the flat plains are interrupted by one regular feature: a Valyrian road extending east from Qohor. 400 miles east of Qohor, the road passes through an immense ruin, a shattered series of stone buildings, torn-down city walls and collapsed wells. Essaria was once a great caravan and trading city, founded by the Valyrian Freehold to facilitate trade with the Kingdom of Sarnor to the east. It was self-governing within the wider structure of the Freehold and, in the immediate aftermath of the Doom of Valyria, it declared itself a tenth Free City. However, almost a century later the city was overrun and destroyed by the Dothraki khalasar under Khal Temmo. The Dothraki renamed the city Vaes Khadokh, “The City of Corpses”, for the death toll in the city was staggering even by Dothraki standards. In the west it is prosaically known as the “Lost Free City”.
Two great Valyrian roads lead out of Essaria. One runs north for 600 miles to Saath on the Shivering Sea. The other runs east for about 230 miles until it reaches the banks of a great and magnificent river, a blue snake cutting through the western and central Dothraki Sea. This is the Sarne, the jewel of northern Essos, and once the lifeblood of the great Kingdom of Sarnor.
Fallen Sarnor and the Sarne River Basin
The Sarne is one of the greatest river networks of Essos, second in size and importance only to the Rhoyne. In ancient times the Sarne was born from the Silver Sea, a large lake or small inland sea in the east of this region, just south of the Bay of Tusks. The Silver Sea began drying up several thousand years ago and is now two large lakes and a number of smaller ones, linked by myriad rivers and streams which join to become the Sarne. The river is fed further by waterways running out of the hills and joined by numerous smaller rivers which feed the western Dothraki Sea and keep it fertile.
This land of fertile fields and rivers, all linked by the Sarne, gave rise to one of the most ancient kingdoms of Essos, that of the Fisher Queens. They ruled a great nation from a floating palace that circled endlessly around the shores of the Silver Sea. They were overthrown in a revolution, their subjects freeing themselves to establish Sarnor, the Realm of the Tall Men. Huzhor Amai was the first High King of Sarnor, uniting the Fisher Queens, Gipps, Cymmeri and Zoqora into one people.
Sarnor was an immense kingdom, stretching for some 1,200 miles from Bitterweed Bay to the Silver Sea, and then beyond for at least 150 miles into the eastern Grasslands. It extended for a similar distance from the Shivering Sea in the north to the Painted Mountains in the south, which separated it from the Valyrian Peninsula and Slaver’s Bay. Sarnor’s capital city was storied Sarnath, but other great cities were founded. These included Saath and Sarys on the immense Sarne Delta; Mardosh, Kyth, Hornoth and Rylathar upriver; and Sallosh, Gornath, Sathar and Kasath on the Silver Sea. These great cities, once among the most glorious cities ever built by men, now all lie in ruins, the works of thousands of years thrown down by the Dothraki. The sole exception is Saath.
Saath lies on the western-most mouth of the Sarne, sitting on the Shivering Sea. The geography of the region, with a network of rivers separating Saath from the Dothraki Sea to the south, prevents easy access to the city by land, helping to save the city from the Dothraki’s wrath. Saath is a relatively small port, a city of 20,000 living behind tall white walls surrounding a good harbour. Saath survives as an important waystop on the sealanes leading from Ibben in the east to Lorath and Braavos to the west. The Saathi are the last of the Sarnori, still calling themselves Tall Men, the last 20,000 survivors of a civilisation that once consisted of teeming millions. Saath can be a maudlin and nostalgic city for this reason.
200 miles to the north-east, on the northern most mouth of the Sarne behind a veritable maze of rivers, streams and marshes, lies Morosh. A colony of Lorath, founded after the fall of Sarnor, Morosh is a mining and trading port. Roughly 130 miles to the south-east of Morosh, about 240 miles due east of Saath, is the former port of Sarys, the sister-city of Saath. Sarys was the last city of Sarnor to be destroyed during the Century of Blood. Unlike Saath, Sarys was built on the southern side of the Sarne and was thus easily accessible by the Dothraki. Khal Zeggo and his khalasar destroyed the city in an orgy of violence and fire, but to their disappointment most of the population had already evacuated to Saath. The Dothraki now refer to the ruins as Vaes Graddakh, the “City of Filth”.
Further ruins lie upriver: Kyth, Mardosh the Unconquerable (before the Dothraki proved otherwise), Hornoth and Rathylar. But most legendary is Sarnath. The ancient capital of Sarnor, Sarnath of the Tall Towers was once one of the largest, most populous and richest cities in the known world, a city to rival Qarth, Volantis or Valyria itself. The Palace With a Thousand Rooms was one of the Wonders of the World, a building of breathtaking beauty. The city’s renown was so great that the Valyrians extended one of their famous straight roads from Essaria (520 miles to the west) to its gates, a rare honour for a city not of Valyrian origin or conquered by them. The city was obliterated after the Dothraki victory on the Field of Crows, when they destroyed the combined armed might of Sarnor in a day of carnage and blood. Its extensive ruins are now known as Vaes Khewo, the “City of Worms”.
Further east lie those cities which were destroyed earlier in the war, when the individual cities fought piecemeal: Kasath (now Vojjor Samui, “The Broken Gods”), the Waterfall City of Sathar (Yalli Qamayi, “The Wailing Children”), Gornath (Vaes Leqse, the “City of Rats”)) and Sallosh (Vaes Athjikhari, the “City of Sickness”), once the great City of Scholars whose library was the envy of the entire known world.
The Sarne River Basin keeps the western grasslands fertile and well-fed. Since the fall of Sarnor, this region has become the western Dothraki Sea, where many khalasars range with their herds of thousands of horses.
The Kingdom of Omber
Omber is a small, pastoral kingdom located in the north of the Dothraki Sea. It lies to the north of the Sarne, on a 250-mile wide headland located between the Bay of Sarnor and the Bay of Tusks. The country consists of fertile plains and fields in the west and tall hills in the east, along the Bay of Tusks.
Omber consists of no major cities, but instead numerous small towns and villages whose leaders rather grandiosely refer to themselves as princes. The Omberi princes survive by paying annual tribute of grain, wine, women and gemstones, mined from the nearby hills, to the Dothraki. The Dothraki could overrun the small kingdom in weeks if they choose, but they find getting the Omberi to do the hard work of mining gemstones for them to be more agreeable.
The Southern Grasslands
650 miles divide ruined Sathar from the city of Meereen on Slaver’s Bay. This region is seen by some as the “true” Dothraki Sea, an endless quilt of green grass, blowing in the winds. Small streams keep these lands fertile but there are no major rivers like the Sarne. During the summer this is an endless emerald sea, but during the winter the grass can wilt and die, turning the landscape brown.
In the midst of this region can be found more ruins. Hazdahn Mo was once a great Ghiscari trading city, established as a colony of Meereen thousands of years ago to trade with Sarnor. The great hill city was annexed by Valyria after the fall of Old Ghis. After the Doom, the city unexpectedly found itself as a hub for slaves: the Dothraki brought Sarnori captives taken in the north for the Hazdahni to sell on to Meereen and Slaver’s Bay. This splendidly profitable arrangement abruptly ended when the Dothraki, on a whim, obliterated Hazdahn Mo and turned it into Vaes Diaf, the City of the Skull.
To the east, beyond a curiously tall, lone hill rising out of the grasslands, lies more Ghiscari ruins: Ghardaq (Krazaaj Has, “Sharp Mountains”, for its pyramids), Vaes Mejhah (the “City of Whores”) and Vaes Efe (the “City of Shackles”, another great slave city). These cities lie north of the River Skahazadhan, down which the Dothraki herd captives to sell in the flesh markets of Meereen. South of the river, which the Dothraki can ford in several places, lies the northern hinterland of Lhazar, which the Dothraki frequently raid for fresh slaves and plunder.
South and east of the Skahazadhan the countryside becomes bleak and desolate, giving way to the Red Waste, a harsh desert that the Dothraki will not cross for lack of water. Instead, they skirt the desert along its northern fringes to pass east to the towering Bone Mountains and the Poison Sea. Further ruins can be found here: Adakhakileki (“The Cannibals”) and Yinishar, a former frontier outpost of the Patriarchy of Hyrkoon reduced to rubble, now called Vaes Jini, the “City of Goats”.
The Great Northern Forest
A vast region of woodland extends along the coast of the Shivering Sea, sprawling for 1,300 miles from the Bay of Tusks to the Bone Mountains. At its thickest, the forest extends 350 miles inland. This utterly vast forest, dwarfing any in Westeros, is known as the Kingdom of the Ifequevron, the latter meaning “woods-walkers”. According to both Dothraki and Sarnori legend, the woods-walkers were a strange, peaceful race living in the deepest forest. Even the Dothraki seem to fear and respect them. Maesters and scholars have drawn comparisons between the woods-walkers and the Children of the Forest of Westerosi legend, but any similarity between these stories is theoretical at best. The forest coastline is habitable and Corlys Velaryon, the Sea Snake, put in along the coast to conduct a survey during his great northern voyage. He reported that the woods were silent and strange, with odd carvings in the trees.
Strangest of all is the ruined settlement on the coast. Located eleven hundred miles east of Morosh, the city does not appear to have been built by humans. The Dothraki theorise it was a city of the woods-walkers, abandoned thousands of years ago. If this is true it may cast doubt on the idea that the woods-walkers were an eastern colony of the Children of the Forest, who did not build cities as we know them. The ruins are called Vaes Leisi, the “City of Ghosts”, and are shunned.
550 miles to the north-east lies the town of New Ibbish. A small port located at the northern end of a peninsula, partially sealed off from the rest of Essos by geography and the rest by a lengthy wall, this is a colony of Ibben, which lies just off the coast to the north across the Bay of Whales (and we will explore further at another time). New Ibbish was founded after the Century of Blood, when the Dothraki destroyed the city of Ibbish. Located 250 miles to the south-east, Ibbish was built around a very impressive harbour and was heavily fortified. It survived for centuries before the Dothraki destroyed the city and its impressive Whalebone Gates. The city repulsed several Dothraki attacks before it was evacuated in secret, to the fury of the Dothraki who named it Vaes Aresak, the “City of Cowards”.
To the east and south-east of the forest lies the forbidding stone mass of the Bone Mountains, marking the boundary between western Essos and the lands of the further east beyond. South, however, lies the heartlands of the Dothraki themselves.
Vaes Dothrak, the City of Riders, is the only permanent Dothraki city, a great sprawling mass of buildings that looks more like a temporary caravan stop then the sole habitation of note between the Bones and Saath, 1,800 miles to the west. Vaes Dothrak is a remarkably isolated city: its nearest neighbours are Meereen, 1,250 miles to the south-west; Kosrak in Lhazar, 950 miles to the south; New Ibbish, almost exactly 700 miles to the north; and Kayakayanaya, about 800 miles to the east, through the Bones.
The city is huge, extending for miles along the shore of the Womb of the World, an immense lake sprawling for about a hundred miles. The Womb feeds a series of rivers which cut north through the northern forests before reaching the Shivering Sea. To the east of the lake is the Mother of Mountains, a sheer mass of stone rising out of the flat Dothraki Sea to dominate the surrounding landscape. Both the Womb and the Mother are considered holy by the Dothraki, who punish any trespassers with lethal force.
Vaes Dothrak has one large entrance, the Horse Gate, less of a gate than two immense statues of horses rearing in battle. From the Horse Gate a huge thoroughfare, the Godsway, extends across the length of the city. It passes the Western and Eastern Markets, both of which are bustling and cosmopolitan, with traders from across the known world meeting and mingling. The Western Market is home to traders from the Free Cities, Slaver’s Bay and the occasional Westerosi or Summer Islander who braves the journey. The Eastern Market is the place of trade for those from Yi Ti, Asshai, the Jogos Nhai and other remote lands of the far east.
Although huge, Vaes Dothraki has relatively little few permanent inhabitants. Most of the population is transitory, meeting to trade or feast. Only the crones known as the Dosh Khaleen and their servants and bodyguards permanently live in the city. Several Dothraki khalasars may be present at any one time, but the city is big enough to hold all of them – the entire Dothraki civilisation – if required. A gathering of the entire Dothraki horde has not happened in living memory, and will only come again if a khal-of-khals arises, a warlord powerful enough to unite all the Dothraki against a common foe.
The largest current Dothraki khalasar is that of Khal Drogo, a fierce warlord and canny general. More than 100,000 people live in his khalasar, over 40,000 of them warriors. How many more khalasars there are is hard to estimate, as they merge, break apart and fight one another with bewildering frequency. What is likely is that there are more Dothraki warriors than there are potential soldiers in all the Seven Kingdoms. It is fortunate that that width of the Narrow Sea and the Free Cities divides the Dothraki from Westeros; the Dothraki fear the poison salt water and will not cross it under any circumstances.
It is said that to “sail beyond Valyria is a fearsome thing”. For those living in Westeros and the Free Cities, the prospect of sailing around the broken Valyrian peninsula is daunting. There are no safe ports between Volantis and Elyria, a distance of eighteen hundred miles by sea. Being caught in storms off the Valyrian coast is a terrifying prospect for sailors, who believe that to come in sight of that fire-wracked coast where the Doom still holds sway means death. There is also the risk of being swept by storms out into the Summer Sea and towards the Basilisk Isles and Sothoryos, where corsairs and plague are common.
For those who take the risk, riches are to be found: the great trade cities of the Jade Sea, the remote and mystery-shrouded port of Asshai and, most profitable for many, slaves. The centre of the known world’s slave trade are the three great cities of Slaver’s Bay, where everything from pleasure slaves to the feared eunuch soldiers known as the Unsullied can be purchased.
More than 600 miles wide, Slaver’s Bay is more of a small sea than just a bay. The far west coast lies against the Valyrian Peninsula, where the still-extant cities of Elyria and Tolos can be found. The north coast is bleak and mostly unsettled. The only good harbour is at Bhorash, but that city was destroyed after the Doom of Valyria and the ruins are shunned. The east coast is home to the great slaver cities. To the south, beyond the Isle of Cedars, Slaver’s Bay becomes the Gulf of Grief, a great body of water so-called for the centuries of conflict between Valyria and Old Ghis that raged across its waters. The Doom of Valyria saw a wave of water hundreds of feet high slam across the gulf, destroying every ship in its path and devastating towns all along the coasts, giving the name fresh meaning. To the east the coast turns along the Summer Sea towards the Straits of Qarth.
A Note on the Ghiscari
Slaver’s Bay is dominated by the culture of Old Ghis, the great Ghiscari Empire which ruled this region for over three thousand years before it was laid low by the might of Valyria. Valyria kept a chokehold on Slaver’s Bay for well over four and a half thousand years (according to tradition) before it was destroyed in the Doom. In the four centuries since then, Ghiscari traditions and culture (or a modern version thereof) have reasserted themselves. However, a distinction should be drawn between the spreading power of New Ghis, which claims to be the Old Empire come again, and the cities of Astapor, Yunkai and Meereen, which are culturally Ghiscari but wish to maintain their political and economic independence.
Astapor, the Red City, is the southern-most of the three main slave cities. Its rooftops and many of its buildings are red in colour, derived from the crumbling old red bricks that the city was built from, giving the city its name. The air is also often heavy in red dust.
Like most cities of Ghiscari origin, its ruling class living in great stepped pyramids. The tallest in Astapor, located along the waterfront, is about 400 feet tall. Further down the coast is the port and the mouth of the Worm River, where pleasure barges can be found. The city’s rulers, the so-called Good Masters, are often found taking their ease on these barges, fanned and fed by well-fed slaves. Elsewhere in the city are far darker sights: the fighting pits where slaves battle one another to the death for the entertainment of the rich, and the Plaza of Pride and Plaza of Punishment where slaves are put on display.
Astapor is famed as the home of the Unsullied, warrior-eunuchs trained from birth to fight and die for their owners. The Unsullied are utterly formidable in battle and a popular choice for bodyguards and household guards. Astapor has a long-standing contract with the Free City of Qohor, which has exclusively used Unsullied as its front-line troops since defeating the Dothraki in the Battle of Qohor over three centuries ago.
Beyond the city lies its hinterland, which runs along the coast for a hundred leagues to the west and south and half that to the north. There are tall hills, more like low mountains, to the south, where the Worm River is born and flows down to the sea. Beyond these mountains likes the resurgent power of the Ghiscari Empire, which Astapor regards warily.
Yunkai, the Yellow City, lies a hundred leagues to the north of Astapor. A sister-city of Astapor, founded in the same wave of Ghiscari expansion well over five thousand years ago, Yunkai is built to a similar design, except the bricks used in its construction are yellow rather than red. Yunkai is the possibly the smallest and most obscure of the three slave cities, lacking Meereen’s enormous strength and influence or Astapor’s reputation built on its Unsullied slave-soldiers.
Yunkai’s rulers, the so-called Wise Masters, seem to compensate for this by giving themselves and their city flamboyant titles, such as the Queen of Cities. Yunkai has a good harbour but is otherwise unremarkable, few of its pyramids approaching the size of Astapor’s and its reputation is built on pleasure slaves rather than soldiers like the Unsullied. Yunkai’s hinterland runs east to the mountains and south along the coast for a good hundred miles or so.
Yaros is a sizeable island located just off the coast claimed by Yunkai. The island appears to be mostly uninhabited, with a rocky coast characterised by towering cliffs. The island’s main use is as a shelter for storms, with ships sometimes choosing to pass through the straits between the island and the mainland rather than swinging west into the open sea. However, this sometimes makes the straits a popular spot for pirates.
Meereen is the largest city on Slaver’s Bay and possibly one of the largest cities in the known world, outstripped only by Volantis, Asshai, possibly Qarth and some of the cities of Yi Ti. This means that the better part of a million people live in the city and the surrounding area. Meereen is larger than Astapor and Yunkai combined and its bricks are of many colours, giving the city a more colourful feel than its its two smaller sister-cities.
The rulers of Meereen are known as the Great Masters, who rule from the Great Pyramid. Over 800 feet tall and one of the tallest structures in the world (taller than the Wall, rivalled by the High Tower of Oldtown and outstripped only by the Five Forts of Yi Ti), the Great Pyramid dominates the skyline of the city and the surrounding countryside for miles. The next-tallest pyramids in the city are less than half the height. Also imposing is the Temple of Graces, the centre of religion in the city and the surrounding region.
Meereen’s walls are tall, studded with towers and significant bastions. With the Dothraki Sea located just to the north, across the river, and the city being located on the frontier between Old Ghis and Valyria, it has always had a need for a strong defence. The walls have been kept in good order (unlike Astapor and Yunkai’s, which have fallen into disrepair over the years) and the city remains formidable. No outside army has taken the city since Valyria overthrew Old Ghis, and even the Dothraki seem to have been daunted by the city’s sheer size. The Great Masters have wisely never given them cause to try to take the city, instead offering them good prices for slaves herded downriver to the city’s fleshpots.
Meereen sits on bluffs on the south side of the River Skahazadhan where it meets Slaver’s Bay. The Skahazadhan provides rapid travel eastwards towards Lhazar and the Dothraki Sea, but this can also be a weakness. During the ancient wars with Valyria, the Meereenese built immense wells to draw water from sources that could not be easily polluted by besiegers. Meereen’s hinterland extends south and east through the sandstone mountains towards the Lhazareen border. Estates can be found in these hills, although the territory is not as verdant as it once was. History records large numbers of cedar trees and olive groves studding the shores of the bay and extending into the hills, but the Valyrians burned most of these out. Farms, tended to by vast numbers of slaves, are located where the ground is fertile enough to turn a good crop, so to help feed the city. However, the land is harsh and in a prolonged siege, not able to bring in food by road or sea, Meereen would likely starve.
The Khyzai Pass
The Khyzai Pass is the name given to a mountainous pass linking the coast of Slaver’s Bay to the kingdom of Lhazar further inland. The Khyzai Pass has been hewn out of the sandstone mountains by the passage of the Khyzai River, a tributary of the Skahazadhan. The pass permits relatively easy travel between Meereen and central and southern Lhazar. There is a road that outflanks the mountains to the north, following the Skahazadhan more closely, but this road also passes through regions that the Dothraki raid on a fairly frequent basis. The pass is a safer and more secure route.
Lhazar is a small kingdom located to the east of the sandstone mountains and south of the Skahazadhan. The nation is noted for its non-warlike, non-expansionist nature. The people of Lhazar are peaceful, placid and value good, honest trade with its neighbours. Many of those neighbours – the Meereenese to the west and the Ghiscari to the south – are unreliable and take advantage of the Lhazareen pliability at almost every turn.
The bulk of the kingdom of Lhazar lies in a triangular region, its boundaries marked by three cities: Hesh in the north-west, Kosrak in the north-east and Lhazosh, the nation’s nominal capital, in the south. The Lhazareen are followers of a deity known as the Great Shepherd, whose priests and priestesses teach in trusting the winds of fate and not doing violence. Some Lhazareen reject these teachings and do take up the ways of fighting for themselves and their people, and have even been known to journey west to Slaver’s Bay and enter the fighting pits, although these are rare.
North of the river that flows from the hills beyond Kosrak, the countryside becomes more dangerous all the way north to the Skahazadhan. The Dothraki do not enjoy crossing the water, but there are several major fords across the river that allows Dothraki khalasars to strike into the Lhazareen borderlands, between the two rivers. Lhazareen villages and towns dot this landscape, becoming rarer in the east as the relatively fertile and green lands around the river give way to the parched desert known as the Red Waste. The Lhazareen of this land still follow the Great Shepherd, but rumour claims that witches and maegi also dwell in these lands, ready to bring curses and disaster on even the formidable Dothraki.
Ghaen, New Ghis and the New Empire
Located just over a hundred miles off the coast, the island of Ghaen was a Ghiscari stronghold for millennia, and latterly an annexed Valyrian colony. The island’s geography protected it during the Doom of Valyria, preventing its population from being wiped out like the Isle of Cedars. Subsequent to the Doom, the people of Ghaen broke away from Valyrian control and declared themselves the true heirs of Old Ghis, the sons of the harpy come again.
The city of New Ghis rose on an island off the coast of Ghaen. Smaller than Astapor, Yunkai or Meereen, but far newer and more dynamic, New Ghis has established itself as a vital waystop and trading centre. The city is strategically located on the main sealanes leading west to the Free Cities, Summer Isles and Westeros, north to Slaver’s Bay and east to Qarth and the Jade Sea. A boom town, New Ghis has increased in size, power and population quite remarkably in the last four centuries. Its location renders it vulnerable to attack by corsairs out of the Basilisk Isles to the south, but the Ghiscari have struck both alliances with the pirates (some say paying them off to seek prey elsewhere) and also trained their own formidable military, spearheaded by the Iron Legions, to defend themselves. The power of New Ghis has spread to the mainland nearby, the territory of old Ghiscar, and continues to grow, to the disquiet of Astapor to the north.
The region of Ghiscar is large, spreading for well over 300 miles to the north and east to the sandstone mountains, as well as along the coast of the Summer Sea. This was the old heartland and core territory of the Ghiscari Empire, its breadbasket and the location of its major cities. Almost five thousand years ago, Valyria devastated this region with dragonfire on an epic scale. So complete was the destruction that most of the Ghiscari towns and villages that once dotted this landscape have simply vanished, with nothing left standing above ground to indicate they were ever there.
An exception are the ruins of Old Ghis, the ancient capital of the Ghiscari Empire. Once one of the greatest cities in the world, Old Ghis spread for miles along the coast of the Summer Sea, along a fine harbour and sheltered from the storms and harsher tides of the open sea by a series of offshore islands. The city was obliterated at the end of the Fifth Ghiscari War, the Valyrians destroying the city in detail and salting the earth. However, the tallest buildings of Old Ghis, the pyramids, were too difficult to destroy altogether and so were simply abandoned. Over millennia they have started to fall back into the ground, but the ruined Great Pyramid of Old Ghis (the inspiration for the near-identical Great Pyramid of Meereen, some 700 miles to the north) still stands, over 800 feet tall.
That then is Slaver’s Bay, a land famed for corruption and decadence. To the north lies a much vaster area commanded by a force that keeps both the slave lords and the rulers of the Free Cities to the west in check: the horse lords of the Dothraki.
Of old, Valyria was the greatest power in the known world. Its empire, the Freehold, stretched from Dragonstone in the Narrow Sea to almost the Straits of Qarth, from the Shivering Sea to the sweltering coasts of plague-ridden Sothoryos. Its armies were the most formidable, its riches beyond imagining and its reach, through the thousands of dragons it commanded, was all-encompassing.
For nigh on five thousand years Valyria was the most formidable power in the world until its might was checked by a force it could not reckon against: that of the earth itself. In a single day and night of fire, fury and tears the Valyrian Freehold was obliterated, its great cities swamped in fire and ash, its people immolated by the millions and the very land rent asunder by earthquakes and tidal waves. Valyria was shattered, never to recover. Its ruined, devastated landmass survives today as a broken peninsula and a jumble of islands separated by smoking waters, the land shunned by travellers. Only the bravest and the most foolish venture in the ruins of Valyria. Few return.
The Valyrian Peninsula lies to the south-east of the Free Cities. The peninsula measures approximately 550 miles in width and roughly 450 miles in length from north to south, although this is substantially less than before the Doom. Before the Doom Valyria extended almost twice as far into the Summer Sea, but the devastating earthquakes saw the southern part of Valyria separated from the mainland by the sea, which came rushing into the lowlands along the neck of the peninsula. The southern half of Valyria now consists of three large islands, at least twenty-one of intermediate size, hundreds more too small to appear on most maps and yet more treacherous reefs and peaks lying just under the waves, ready to tear the bottom out of any ship trying to pass over. The lands commonly referred to as “Valyria” encompass all of these islands, the peninsular and all of the lands up to the Painted Mountains to the north and the Black Cliffs to the east.
The Painted Mountains and the Demon Road
Located at the northern end of the Valyrian Peninsular, the Painted Mountains form a barrier between the open grasslands of the Dothraki Sea and the coastlands to the south. The Painted Mountains are tall and fierce, not easy to climb or cross. The mountains were no obstacle to the dragonriders of old, but they were a barrier to settlers, funnelling them west into the Free Cities or east into the older, more decadent lands of Slaver’s Bay instead.
Running through the southern foothills is a straight Valyrian road linking the Free City of Volantis to the west with the lands of Slaver’s Bay, although the road itself terminates at the ruins of Bhorash atop the Black Cliffs, with only tracks and lesser roads extending further east to Meereen. This road is called the “Demon Road” because it has a fearsome reputation.
The city of Mantarys sits on the Demon Road at the top of the Valyrian Peninsula, just under 600 miles from Volantis and 450 miles from Bhorash. Founded by Valyria as a great crossroads settlement between east and west, north and south, Mantarys was once a great, bustling trade city. People from a hundred nations could be found there, Sarnori, Valyrians, Westerosi and Ghiscari hawking their wares and taking a well-earned rest on their way to other cities. The Doom changed Mantarys. The city survived, but became jammed with refugees fleeing from the south. In the past three centuries, the city has acquired a fell reputation and is now said to be a place of savagery and grotesques. Two-headed children, people afflicted with greyscale and other monstrosities are said to dwell there in vast numbers. The City of Monsters, as it is now called, is shunned. Those travelling overland from the Free Cities to Slaver’s Bay try to slip around the city to the north, but the geography makes this difficult. Many who brave the Demon Road through Mantarys do not return. Now the majority of trade and travel between the west and east takes place by ship, giving Mantarys and the Valyrian Peninsula a wide berth.
The Sea of Sighs and the Lands of the Long Summer
Of old, the Lands of the Long Summer were the breadbasket of the Valyrian Peninsula. Smaller than the Reach of Westeros but even more fertile, this region extends for approximately 400 miles from north to south and for almost 300 miles from east to west. The towering volcanoes known as the Fourteen Fires lay along this region’s southern and south-eastern border, with ash from the flames proving surprisingly beneficial to the growing of crops. Vast farmsteads dotted the landscapes, with bustling market towns lying athwart the great Valyrian roads leading north to Mantarys, north-west to Volantis and south to Valyria. In the north-west of this region lay the Sea of Sighs, a tranquil inland sea fed by rivers descending from the Painted Mountains.
The Doom changed all of this. The southern part of the Lands of the Long Summer was destroyed, simply falling into the sea. Vast amounts of ash fell across these lands, annihilating the towns and farms that used to sprawl across them. The waters of the Sea of Sighs turned red, poisoned by the filth falling from the skies. Formerly the greatest growing fields in the known world were turned into a wasteland. In the far south, overlooking the Smoking Sea, lies the ruins of Oros, formerly a great city located at the northern end of the pass leading into Valyria proper.
The Smoking Sea
The Smoking Sea is the youngest sea in the known world, formed during the Doom of Valyria. The Smoking Sea was once the southern part of the Lands of the Long Summer and a mountainous region dominated by the Fourteen Fires. The eruption of the mountains collapsed the lands, millions of tons of rock falling into the sea which came rushing in from east and west. Several of the Fourteen Fires appear to have been completely destroyed. Several survive on islands (said to be rapidly growing in size again) and several remain part of the mainland and the islands.
The Smoking Sea is so-called because the waters are often warm and strange mists float across the surface. It is said that whoever breathes in these fumes dies instantly. Some sailors claim that these mists are demons and the Smoking Sea is haunted. Maesters claim that they are natural, if noxious, gases resulting from volcanic activity. Despite theoretically cutting travel time from the Free Cities to Slaver’s Bay by a week or more, the Smoking Sea is shunned by almost all sailors. Only the hardiest (or most foolish) brave their waters.
The city of Valyria was once the greatest sight in the whole world. A city of slender towers sitting above lava channels flowing from the southern volcanoes, dragons were required to fly safely between the buildings. This was the seat of the conclave of the Lords Freeholder, the meeting place of the Valyrian fire mages and the home of the dragonriders. It was a sight to behold, but it was all lost in the Doom. A veritable storm of ash fell on the city out of the sky, killing almost the entire population (human and dragon alike). Valyria was abandoned, but according to some the ash had the unusual effect of also preserving the city at the very moment of its destruction. For those brave enough to cross the Smoking Sea, reach the ruins and begin digging, great treasures are said to be just waiting. Most who make this attempt die or disappear in the attempt, but a few have survived, bearing treasures of the Freehold which attract immense prices in the markets of the Free Cities (especially Volantis).
The Isle of Cedars and the Gulf of Grief
The Doom triggered a vast series of tidal waves which reached across the seas to the east of Valyria, smashing against the coasts of the old Ghiscari Empire. The destruction would have been far worse along Slaver’s Bay if the Isle of Cedars had not arrested the waves, at terrible cost.
The Isle of Cedars is about 150 miles long and 30 miles wide. It is located between the coasts of the Valyrian Peninsula to the west and the coast of the lands held by Astapor to the east, whilst it also divides Slaver’s Bay to the north from the Gulf of Grief to the south. The island is steeply hilled and mountainous, their slopes inundated with tens of thousands of cedar trees. Of old the island was called the Isle of a Hundred Battles, as the great Ghiscari port of Ghozai lay at the northern end of the island the Valyrian city of Velos was located at the southern end. Located between the two empires, the isle was the site of many great naval engagements, sea battles and aerial assaults using dragons until Old Ghis was finally destroyed. Ghozai became a Valyrian city and both it and Velos prospered until the Doom destroyed both with a wave of water said to be three hundred feet tall. Only a few Valyrian soldiers manning watchtowers on the tallest hills survived.
The Isle of Cedars was never resettled and today is filled with animals, including wild boar and monkeys. The isle’s animal life is remarkably hostile and lacks a fear of man, so it is largely avoided. Over the years cities such as Elyria, Tolos and Astapor have mused on resettling the island, but have never done so.
Elyria and Tolos
Elyria and Tolos are, along with Mantarys and Volantis, the only cities directly founded by Valyria to have survived the Doom, as their location put them out of the reach of the waves that destroyed Velos and Ghozai. The two cities are relatively small, but both seem to have found a way of surviving by aligning themselves with the slave trade and establishing ties with feared Mantarys to the west.
Elyria, located on an island just off the coast of the Valyrian Peninsula, south-east of Mantarys, is obscure. It is off the main trade route from Slaver’s Bay to the Free Cities, so it has to survive on trade with Tolos. More famous Tolos, located the mainland about 120 miles to the east, is larger and better-known, with a significant hinterland. Tolos is known for its slingers, highly-trained soldiers who use powerful slings to hurl projectiles with devastating accuracy.
Both cities are beacons of civilisation – if of a rough and brutal kind – in a region still recovering from the greatest cataclysm the world has ever seen. Further east lies much larger and greater cities, if also cities that are more decadent and more corrupt: the great Ghiscari cities of Slaver’s Bay.
To the people of Westeros, “beyond the Narrow Sea” is a phrase promising exotic new locales, adventures in remote and interesting lands and a reference to rich cities specialising in exotic gods, heathenism and corruption. They refer to the Nine Free Cities of Essos, often talking about them in the same terms when each city is remarkably different in tone, character and history. The Free Cities share a history – they were founded by or in response to the actions of the Freehold of Valyria – but culturally and economically each stands alone.
The region covered by the Free Cities is vast, matching the entire South of Westeros in size. It extends for approximately 1,800 miles from north to south and for over 1,300 miles from east to west. The Free Cities region is bordered by the Shivering Sea to the north, the Narrow Sea to the west, the Summer Sea to the south and the Dothraki Sea and Painted Mountains to the east.
Internally, the Free Cities region consists of large and fertile plains watered by numerous rivers. Several rivers rise in the hills and mountains of the north. Generally referred to as the “Hills of Norvos”, although many of these “hills” rival mountains in Westeros in size, these highlands give rise to the rivers which rush down to the plains and forests, forming the mighty Rhoyne along their way. The Rhoyne sweeps south for almost 1,350 miles, from the source of the Upper Rhoyne all the way to the river delta just below Volantis, watering the Flatlands, the Golden Fields and the Volantene hinterlands along the way.
Other areas of interest in this region include the Disputed Lands, Orange Coast, the ruins of the Rhoynar cities and the numerous offshore islands.
The Hundred Isles of Braavos
The northern-most of the Free Cities is Braavos. Braavos is located in a lagoon at the far north-western tip of the Essosi continent, where the Narrow Sea meets the Shivering Sea, surrounded by ridged islands which keep the worst of the winter winds and storms away from the city. Braavos itself is said to sprawl over a hundred islands, although the real number is fewer, due to some of the islands having sunk beneath the waves since the city’s founding eight centuries ago.
The isles of Braavos are enclosed in a brackish, saltwater bay open to the sea through channels through the outlying islands. Treacherous reefs and rocks dot these channels, leaving only one, in the north-west between Sellagoro’s Shield and a neighbouring island, large enough for ocean-going ships. This channel is guarded by the Titan of Braavos, a colossal combination of statue, lighthouse and fortification. The Titan, which is at least 300 feet tall and possibly more, has fires burning within its eyes to guide ships home and an immense horn (sometimes called the Titan’s Roar) which can be blown to alert the city to the approach of vessels. Just inside the bay is the Arsenal, an island where Braavosi war galleys can be constructed in a day from pre-fabricated components. The Arsenal itself is heavily defended and Braavosi warships patrol both the bay and the surrounding waters in impressive numbers.
Behind the Arsenal is the Chequy Port, a small island containing a customs inspection port. Ships passing the port will be waved to their destinations: foreign ships are directed south to the Ragman’s Harbour and Braavosi vessels are directed east to the Purple Harbor. Just south of the Chequy Port is the entrance to the Canal of Heroes, a broad waterway guarded by the statues of great Braavosi warriors and rulers. This canal leads to the bay at the heart of the city, where the Isle of Gods and Palace of Truth are located. The Long Canal leads south from this bay, leading to the fishmarket and south side of the lagoon, whilst the Green Canal extends eastwards.
Braavos is a city of canals, rivers and small lakes, all spanned by many hundreds of bridges. Although the city technically consists of many islands, it can be divided into three primary districts. The northern-most is the richest, being the home to many of the city’s nobles and richest merchants. The Sealord’s Palace is located at the north-eastern edge of the city, with the Moon Pool and the Iron Bank just to the south. To the south-west lies the most bustling district of the city, home of the Ragman’s Harbor, the biggest markets and many of the most popular taverns and places of business. The Drowned Town, the oldest part of the city which has subsided into the lagoon, can also be found here.
To the south-east lies the city’s poorest district, the Silty Town, although some noble houses (like the Antaryons, current rulers of the city) have taken up residence here due to favourable prices. The Sweetwater River, an immense aqueduct, extends from north-eastern part of the city south before swinging south-west to meet the mainland, thus supplying all three main districts of the city with fresh water.
In the centre of the city lies the Isle of Gods and many other places of worship: the Temple of the Moonsingers (the largest, in recognition of their role in founding the city), the Temple of the Lord of Light, the Sept-beyond-the-Sea and the feared House of Black and White, the reputed headquarters of the Faceless Men.
The mainland of the lagoon is brackish and swampy, so there appear to be no settlements immediately adjacent to the city itself. However, Braavos has claimed the coast of the Narrow Sea southwards from Braavos for approximately 450 miles, as well as the entire western shore of Lorath Bay. This region surrounding the city is dotted with mines, villages and some more substantial towns, all keeping Braavos supplied with food, timber and iron and, combined with trade, all allowing Braavos to maintain its position as the richest and most militarily powerful of the Free Cities.
The population of Braavos is unknown, although some speculate that maybe twice as many people live in and near the city as in King’s Landing in Westeros.
The Islands of Lorath
Located approximately 375 miles east of Braavos, at the northern mouth of Lorath Bay, Lorath is the most remote of the Free Cities; nothing lies to its east for over two thousand miles until hardy sailors reach the island of Ib, although a few ports can be found on the north coast of Essos. Lorath is the poorest, smallest and least populous of the Free Cities, but remains viable due to the rich waters around the Lorathi Isles, which teem with fish, walruses and whales.
The Lorathi claim dominion over both the islands and entire coastline of Lorath Bay. They do control the islands, most notably Lorath Island itself and Lorassyon, the second-largest island, as well as a score of smaller islands and rocks that no-one else wants, but at best they control only the east coast of the bay and the peninsula located immediately to the south of the islands themselves; the west coast is held by Braavos and the effortless superiority of the Braavosi navy means that the Lorathi are unable to press their historical claims. Their only major recent success has been the founding of the colony city of Morosh at the mouth of the River Sarne. However, the distance between the two cities (Morosh lies approximately 1,000 miles east of Lorath, almost halfway to Ib) precludes direct rule and the colony-city is left to its own course in most matters.
A curious feature of the Lorathi Isles are their mazes. An unknown and ancient people constructed mazes across the three islands and the nearby mainland. The largest covers three-quarters of the island of Lorassyon and extends for four levels underground, over 500 feet. According to tradition, the maze-makers were wiped out by a threat from the sea many millennia ago.
Norvos is located on the mainland of Essos, almost 750 miles south-east of Braavos. The tall peaks of the Hills of Norvos separate Norvos from the north coast and provide the city with its wealth via immense mines stretching under the limestone hills surrounding the city. Dark forests of pine and beech can also be found near the city.
The city is located on the banks of the River Noyne, a tributary of the Rhoyne, and this defines the layout of the city. The Low City sits next to the river and contains docks, a port and trading establishments. It is rude, rowdy and bustling. The High City, surrounding by tall stone walls, is located 300 feet above and is the home to rich nobles and the city’s religious caste, who act as de facto rulers. The two districts are linked by the Sinner’s Steps, which are guarded so only people with business in the High City are permitted entry.
Norvos is a theocracy ruled by the enigmatic Bearded Priests, who have no interest in explaining their religion to outsiders. The worship of other gods is not permitted in the High City and the city’s merchant council is appointed by the Priests. Although the Priests guard the independence of Norvos jealously, they are also pragmatic enough to collect tribute for when Dothraki khalasars ride out of the east along the impressive Valyrian highway leading from ruined Sarnath to Pentos. Norvos’s formidable walls and the ability to evacuate and reinforce by river make the city a tough nut to crack, even for the Dothraki, so the Norvosi tribute is helpful in persuading Dothraki khals not to expend the tens of thousands of lives it would take to seize the city.
Norvos controls a wide swathe of surrounding territory, extending some 350 miles north-east to the Axe (where Norvos holds several mines), north and west into the hills and south along the Noyne as far as Ny Sar. Norvos controls a small fleet of warships which it occasionally deploys against river pirates, sometimes in conjunction with (or in opposition to) the forces of Qohor to the east.
The Forest City of Qohor
Qohor is located 450 miles south-east of Norvos and almost 1,200 miles south-east of Braavos. The city is also located over 900 miles due north of Volantis.
The city rests on the banks of the River Qhoyne, just as it enters the forbidding Forest of Qohor. Much of Qohor’s wealth and riches come from the forest, which it has logged extensively over the centuries. The forest is over 700 miles long from north to south and 300 miles at its widest point. It is thick and dark, home to wolves and other dangerous animals. Travel through the forest is largely restricted to boating along the Qhoyne or by using the Valyrian road which leads from Qohor due east to long-fallen Essaria and Sarnath (and, across the open plains, beyond to distant Vaes Dothrak and the Bones).
Whilst this road allows trade caravans to pass the city, to its enrichment, it also provides an unfortunately easy route of access for Dothraki khalasars to the city. During the Bleeding Years, Qohor came under a massive assault by the Dothraki which it beat off by deploying a garrison of Unsullied warrior-eunuchs from distant Astapor. Qohor barely survived the onslaught. The Dothraki have chosen not to attack the city again, especially since the Free Cities are happy to provide them with tribute instead, but Qohor lives in caution of the day that a bold khal against chooses to try to sack the forest city.
Qohor is also called the City of Sorcerers, for it is reported that warlocks and self-styled wizards spend their time in the city trying to recreate the fallen arts of lost Valyria. This extends to metalworking, where the Qohorik smiths are said to have re-discovered at least some of the secrets of forging Valyrian steel. The city is united in its worship of the Black Goat, a deity that hungers for blood (of animals, but sometimes human sacrifice is reported in the city) and is regarded as a demon by some of the other Free Cities.
Despite something of a dark reputation, Qohor is also immensely rich, as it stands as a self-styled gateway between the worlds of the west and east.
Pentos is located on the west coast of Essos and is a mighty port. It sits at the head of the Bay of Pentos, a body of water almost completely enclosed by a mountainous peninsula, with a wide channel leading out into the Narrow Sea proper. Smaller than Volantis or Braavos, but larger than most of the other cities, Pentos is seen as the gateway to Essos and is located conveniently close to King’s Landing, the capital of the Seven Kingdoms, which lies about 800 miles to the west. Braavos lies almost exactly 750 miles to the north, Qohor 900 miles to the east and Myr some 450 miles to the south and east, giving Pentos (in theory) domination over a wide swathe of territory.
However, this is not the case. On paper, Pentos claims the Flatlands, the immense and fertile countryside of plains and rivers extending east from the city to the Rhoyne, north to the Velvet Hills and south to the Golden Fields. In practice, the Pentoshi hesitate to build towns and villages out on the plains from fear of the Dothraki. The Dothraki often visit Pentos, aware of the riches in tribute they can gather from its magisters and the wealth that flows into the city by sea. Although the Dothraki are unlikely to ever destroy the city itself (it being too useful as a source of slaves and tribute), settlements out on the plains are a different matter. Some magisters maintain expansive manses out on the Flatlands, but will generally retire behind the walls of Pentos when they hear of a khalasar‘s approach.
Pentos is also an ally – if sometimes a reluctant one – of Braavos. 190 years ago Pentos lost a sixth bloody war with the former Secret City and was forced to give up its claims to the coastlands to the north and also abolish the slave trade. Formally, slavery is as illegal in Pentos as it is in Braavos, but in practice the city employs a bewildering legal structure of “bond-servants” and “indentured servants” to get around this proscription.
Pentos’s submission to both the Dothraki and Braavos have given the city a reputation for cowardice and political expediency over ideology or strength. As a result the city lacks the formidable reputation of most of the other Free Cities, and is not widely respected (especially by the honour-obsessed nobles of the Seven Kingdoms). However, the merchant princes of the city can scheme and plot with the best of them, and should not be underestimated.
Myr is located some 450 miles south of Pentos and commands an impressive harbour at the eastern end of the Sea of Myrth, a significant inlet of the Narrow Sea. The city controls a wide swathe of territory, extending inland for several hundred miles and south to the river that marks the northern perimeter of the Disputed Lands. Despite this, it is not one of the larger cities and has spent time in previous centuries as a vassal of Volantis before re-establishing its freedom.
Myr is a practical city, less concerned with religious matters than with trade and with science. Myrish artisans build some of the finest clocks in the world, and their lens-makers are inarguably the finest in the world in the field of optics, impressing even the maesters of Oldtown.
Myr is well-situated for trade, with its trading fleets paying frequent visits to the Seven Kingdoms to the west and Pentos and Braavos to the north. Its merchants also strike out inland, helped by a Valyrian dragonroad which leads towards the Rhoyne; however, this road was never finished and soon gives way to a ruder network of roads and tracks traversing the Myrish hinterland and leading east to the Rhoyne and south-east towards Volantis, almost 800 miles distant.
Tyrosh is located on the north-eastern most island in the Stepstones, 400 miles south-west of Myr and 450 miles north-west of Lys. It dominates the northern part of the island and started life as a Valyrian military outpost, with walls of fused black dragonstone. Later, the inhabitants discovered a unique species of sea snail on the islands nearby which produced a remarkable dye. Tyrosh built its reputation and its riches on both this dye and controlling the treacherous trade routes through the Stepstones.
Tyrosh is also the nearest of the Free Cities to the mainland of Westeros; the coast of Dorne lies barely 200 miles south-west of the city. There are friendly ties between Tyrosh and Dorne going back many years, with the Prince of Dorne and Archon of Tyrosh (the head of the city’s merchant council) frequently exchanging visits, but Tyrosh’s reputation elsewhere is mixed. In particular, the relationship between Tyrosh and the fleets of corsairs and freesails which infest the Stepstones is open to question, with many in both Westeros and Essos accusing the Tyroshi of employing the corsairs to raid ships for its own enrichment. The Tyroshi sometimes sponsor fleets to “clear” the Stepstones of raiders, which sometimes leads to a few years of peace, but always the pirates return.
Tyrosh has also often been at odds with Braavos, especially its brazen use of slavers (occasionally sailing even beyond the Wall in search of wildling slaves). The distance between the two cities (over 1,300 miles) precludes a major military confrontation, but the prospect of a merchant war between the two cities has usually seen Tyrosh back down.
Lys is the southern-most of the Free Cities. It is located on an island in the Summer Sea and commands the sea lanes leading north to the Narrow Sea, south to the Summer Isles and east to Volantis and the Jade Sea, all of which combine to make it immensely rich. It is also well-known as the most beautiful of the Free Cities, with graceful buildings and walls. Its pleasure houses are the finest in the known world and its origins as a retreat for Valyrian nobles is well-known.
Lys is not a soft target, however. It commands a formidable fleet and its walls may be beautiful but are also strong and thick. The Lyseni are devoted to pleasure but fearful when roused to battle, and they are rich enough to hire fleets of sellsails and armies of sellswords quite quickly.
The Disputed Lands
Myr, Tyrosh and Lys are often called “The Quarrelsome Daughters of Valyria”, for the near four centuries of blood and violence that have unfolded between them. Under the stewardship of Valyria, the three cities had a relatively peaceful existence, but in the wake of the Freehold’s fall they fell into conflict with both one another and Volantis, which attempted to establish an empire to inherit the authority of the dragonlords.
Once the chaos of the Century of Blood was over, the three cities found themselves clashing over the fertile “Heel of Essos”, a wide promontory at the south-western tip of the Essosi continent. This peninsula is the eastern end of the former land bridge that once joined Westeros to Essos, with the Stepstones all that remains of the intervening land. The Heel was balmy, fertile and beautiful, a land of rolling hills, fast-flowing rivers and numerous towns and villages which had endured for centuries under the rule of Valyria.
This rapidly changed. The three cities clashed repeatedly for control of this rich land, sometimes joined by Volantene adventurers from the east, and found themselves unable to conquer the region altogether. Simply put, the three cities have always been too well-matched and any attempt by two of the cities to join forces has always failed in backstabbing and recrimination. The three cities have established more permanent footholds in the territory – Myr from the north, Lys on the south coast and Tyrosh on the west coast – but have never been able to break out and conquer the entire territory.
The Free Companies of Essos were born in the Disputed Lands some permanently base themselves there; indeed, some towns and settlements have been under the rule of one or other of the mercenary armies far longer than they ever have been by any of the Free Cities.
The Disputed Lands are not quite as fertile as they once were. Scores of battles have seen towns, villages and even small cities completely destroyed and the ground where they stood salted. Some rivers and wells have been poisoned by one retreating army or another. Over the course of almost three centuries of warfare, much of the peninsula’s population has fled, leaving behind those too poor or weak to attempt the journey, or those brave enough to try to take advantage of the conflicts for their own enrichment.
Landmarks in the Disputed Lands are relatively few and far between, but most notable is the Tree of Crowns, a massive tree on a tall hill near the centre of the territory, and a commonly-used neutral meeting and parley ground. Most famously, it was here that the Band of Nine formed its alliance and struck out to conquer Tyrosh and the Stepstones before it was smashed by Westerosi armies during the War of the Ninepenny Kings forty years ago.
The Stepstones are a group of islands located between the peninsula of Dorne, in Westeros, and the Disputed Lands, in Essos. According to tradition, the Stepstones are the remnants of a land bridge which once linked the two continents. The land bridge was destroyed by the Children of the Forest in the event known as the Hammer of the Waters, which allegedly occurred ten thousand years ago during the war of the Children and the First Men. Maesters are divided on the issue, some believing this is a garbled account of a more gradual and natural rising of ocean levels due to the melting of remote ice caps, and some believing it never happened at all.
There are approximately sixteen islands large enough to appear on maps, but there are many more rocks, archipelagos and islets too small to appear on such maps. The islands are treacherous, with reefs and rocks located just below the surface. Most sailors know the safest channels to use to travel between the Narrow Sea to the north and the Summer Sea to the south, but so do pirates and corsairs. The Stepstones span a relatively small area – 200 miles east to west and 300 north to south – but a surprising amount of pirate activity takes place in this region, some of it attributed to the actions of Tyrosh, Myr and Lys, some of it to reavers from the Basilisk Isles or the Iron Islands of Westeros.
Only two of the islands have names which are well-known to history: Bloodstone, one of the larger islands, was once the seat of Daemon Targaryen, the briefly-reigning King of the Narrow Sea, and was also the site of the final battle of the War of the Ninepenny Kings, where the young Ser Barristan Selmy slew Prince Maelys Blackfyre in combat, ending the line of the Blackfyre Pretenders after five generations of blood. A third island name is known, Torturer’s Deep, but its location is open to speculation.
Volantis is the oldest, largest and most populous of the Free Cities, and some say the most corrupt and decadent. Located at one of the several mouths of the River Rhoyne on the far south coast of Essos, the city is an immense metropolis, one of the biggest cities in the known world. Its vast, crescent-shaped harbour extends for many miles and the entire city of Braavos could fit within its confines with room to spare. Its population may exceed one million, certainly when the surrounding farms, villages and towns are included.
Volantis is located approximately 750 miles east of Lys and is almost 1,900 miles to the south-east of Braavos. Meereen on Slaver’s Bay lies approximately 1,650 miles to the east. Most forbiddingly, the ruins of Valyria lie just 800 miles to the south-east of the city, a relatively nearby reminder of the heritage lost to the city.
Volantis controls a significant swathe of surrounding territory and, almost uniquely among the Free Cities, commands the authority of several settlements also large enough to be called cities: Volon Therys, located 75 miles upriver; Valysar, located a further 80 miles or so the north; and Selhorys, located about 120 miles even further north. Each of these cities exceeds Oldtown in population and maybe King’s Landing, putting their population at around 300,000-450,000 each. Volantis’s influence also runs approximately 225 miles to the east, where the so-called “demon road” reaches the top of the Valyrian Peninsula, and 300 miles to the west, along the so-called Orange Coast where some Volantene families have coastal retreats when they wish to avoid the city.
The city itself is divided into two halves by the River Rhoyne. The western half is newer and of more recent construction. The docks and ports for foreign visitors are located along the coast here and markets, taverns and housing extend for many miles inland. To the east of the Rhoyne lies the older and more up-market part of the city, with sprawling noble estates and higher-quality housing. Dominating the eastern district are the 200-foot-tall Black Walls, a large, circular construction extending for miles and including the most ancient parts of the city. Only those of noble Volantene blood may set foot inside the Black Walls.
Officially, the city keeps to the worship of the gods of Old Valyria, but many other places of worship can be found. Most notable is the massive temple to the Lord of Light, the largest outside Asshai. Thrice the size of the Great Sept of Baelor, the temple is seen as the centre of R’hllor worship in western Essos and commands tremendous loyalty from both freedmen and slaves in the city, to the growing disquiet of the nobility.
Although it is still the largest and most populous of the Free Cities, Volantis’s population is much reduced from what it once was; entire districts of the city have fallen into ruin and disrepair. Part of the reason for Volantis’s decline may be its reputation for corruption, but also its uncomfortable climate (the city was once a swamp, and outbreaks of disease make that clear) and its remoteness from the other Free Cities. However, Volantis’s position athwart the main shipping land east to the Jade Sea will ensure its continued prosperity for centuries to come.
The Rhoyne, also known as Mother Rhoyne, is the greatest river in the known world. It is born in the high valleys of the Hills of Norvos as the Upper Rhoyne. From its remote source, in the high peaks some 300 miles south of Braavos, the Upper Rhoyne flows south-east for some 430 miles before it meets the Little Rhoyne, a tributary flowing out of the Velvet Hills to the west. The ruined Rhoynar city of Ghoyan Drohe, which carries the main Valyrian dragonroad from Pentos to Norvos, can be found near the confluence.
From the meeting of the two rivers, the Rhoyne flows south-east for some 230 miles before it meets the Noyne, itself a mighty river having flowed for 500 miles from its south in the high hills north of Norvos. At the meeting of the two rivers lies the great Rhoynar city of Ny Sar, the home of the infamous Princess Nymeria who led her people in exodus to Dorne.
The river flows south for some 150 miles before reaching Dagger Lake. Almost 80 miles long and a dozen miles wide at its widest point, Dagger Lake is a notable landmark on the river. It is often shrouded in mist, allowing ships to slip past one another. The Qhoyne, another major tributary, also flows into Dagger Lake from the north-east, having already flowed for 300 miles south-west out of the Forest of Qohor. Another tributary, the Darkwash, flows south from the Hills of Norvos and the mountains south of the Axe for 500 miles before joining the Qhoyne.
South of Dagger Lake the Rhoyne becomes wider and faster-flowing. It is already miles wide at this point. About 130 miles south of Dagger Lake the river reaches the colossal ruins of Chroyane. Today called the Sorrows, the ruins of the once-greatest city of the Rhoyne stretch for miles along the river. Many of the people still living in the city are afflicted with greyscale, and ships are advised to pass through the ruins quickly lest they are overrun by “stone men”. At Chroyane, the river is joined by the Lhorulu, which itself has flowed for over 200 miles out of the Golden Fields to the west. The Golden Fields were once the breadbasket of the Rhoyne, feeding several of the cities, but today their remoteness from any of the major cities has left them wild and untamed.
170 miles south of Chroyane the river is joined by the Selhoru, at which point it is so wide the other side of the river can barely be seen. The river now enters the territory of Volantis and becomes faster-flowing. The city of Selhorys is located a few miles south of the confluence. Almost 300 miles to the south, after being joined by the Volaena and flowing past the ruined Rhoynar city of Sar Mell, the Rhoyne finally splinters into four major (and many smaller) branches as it opens into a wide delta. Volantis sits on one of the eastern-most branches, whilst one of the western branches loops around to flow into the Summer Sea at the ruins of Sarhoy, a once-great city of the Rhoynar obliterated by Valyria.
The Free Cities form a vast amount of territory, home to many millions of people and a competing morass of cultures more diverse than those in Westeros. It is merely the western-most part of the vast continent of Essos; further east lie peoples, cities and places stranger still.
Essos is the largest continent in the known world. To its inhabitants it is the birthplace of civilisation, the probable birthplace of humanity and, to all intents and purposes, it is the world, Westeros less than an afterthought.
Essos is a land of great extremes: its great rivers (such as the Rhoyne and the Sarne) dwarf the largest rivers in Westeros and its tallest mountains are far beyond the tallest peaks of the Sunset Lands in size. Its cities are larger and its merchants richer, by far, than their western cousins.
It is also a much more fractious and violent land. Whilst almost all of Westeros (barring the northern fringes) is united as a single polity, Essos is divided between dozens of city-states and kingdoms, as well as several large empires and nomadic warriors whose territories extend over thousands of miles.
It is also a land of mysteries and the unknown. Even its geographic constraints have not been measured: beyond the forests of Mossovy, the plains of the Grey Waste, the peaks of the Mountains of the Morn and the mist-shrouded waters of the Saffron Straits, all knowledge of the continent abruptly ceases. Expeditions seeking to explore the lands to the east of Carcosa and the Shadow Lands – even by the ancient Valyrians on dragonback – have simply all vanished without a trace. Even the famed Sea Snake of Westeros, Corlys Velaryon, chose to turn back at Nefer rather than risk further travel through uncharted seas.
The mapped portion of Essos, stretching from the western-most promontory in the Disputed Lands to the eastern shores of the Hidden Sea, extends across a distance of approximately 6,335 miles. At its widest in the far east, the continent extends for approximately 2,600 miles from Nefer on the Shivering Sea to Asshai on the Jade Sea. The continent is divided into several informal cartographic regions by maesters when discussing its geography, for ease of debate.
The western-most region is known as the Free Cities, for it is dominated by nine great city-states and the large regions of territory each control. These cities are Braavos, Lorath, Lys, Myr, Norvos, Pentos, Qohor, Tyrosh and Volantis. This is the area that has the most traffic with Westeros, lying as it does just a few days sail across the Narrow Sea.
East of the Free Cities lies the vast region known as the Dothraki Sea, consisting mainly of the vast grasslands that give it its names, as well as the lands watered by the River Sarne.
South of this region lies Slaver’s Bay, formerly the heartland of the vast Valyrian Freehold and the Ghiscari Empire before that, but today divided between the ruined lands of Valyria and the Lands of the Long Summer (over both of which the Doom still holds sway) in the west and the resurgent cities of the harpy to the east: Meereen, Astapor, Yunkai and New Ghis. Immediately neighbouring them to the east is the kingdom of Lhazar.
East of Slaver’s Bay lies the forbidding Red Waste and the great city-state of Qarth, as well as the immense offshore island of Great Moraq. The gateway between east and west, this region sees immense wealth flowing between the Summer Sea in the west and the Jade Sea in the east.
North of the Dothraki Sea lies the island of Ib (sometimes called Ibben), which also controls stretches of the nearby mainland as well.
East of the Dothraki Sea lies the immense Bone Mountains and the Plains of the Jogos Nhai, home to a formidable, nomadic warrior-race as well as the surviving city-states of the ancient, long-fallen Patrimony of Hyrkoon.
South of the Plains of the Jogos Nhai lies the Golden Empire of Yi Ti. Probably the most populous nation in the known world, Yi Ti is ancient (some might say decadent), rich beyond reckoning and home to a hundred quarrelsome cities, each larger than King’s Landing or Oldtown. The wealthy island of Leng lies just off its coast.
In the far south-east of the world lies the Jade Sea, a vast, circular ocean whose shores teem with great cities, forbidding jungles and dark mysteries. Hundreds of islands fill the Jade Sea, chief among them fire-shrouded Marahai and the exotic Island of Elephants.
East of the Jogos Nhai lies the Far East, home to the Thousand Isles, the heavily-forested realm of Mossovy and the disturbing Bleeding Sea. This region is home to the Cannibal Sands, the Land of the Shrykes and the Cities of the Bloodless Men. The Mountains of the Morn loom over the landscape, in a hidden valley of which is said to lie the Hidden Sea, the homes of the fabled winged men and the forbidding, mysterious city of Carcosa. Knowledge fails us in this land and reality and myth become entwined.
Finally, south of the Mountains of the Morn and east of the Jade Sea lies the Shadow Lands, a land of towering mountains so high that they block out the sun, plunging the surrounding valleys into utter darkness even during the day. This is the land of ghost grass, the brackish waters of the River Ash and the corpse-city Stygai, where even the greatest sorcerers of the Shadow refuse to tread. At the mouth of the Ash lies the largest city (but most heavily under-populated) in the known world, Asshai-by-the-Shadow, mostly left in derelict ruins where sorcerers practice foul rites and hungry merchants lust for gold.
The population of Essos is hard to estimate, although maesters suggest it is considerably more than the (conservative) estimates of forty-five million for Westeros. Yi Ti is densely populated and the Free Cities almost all dwarf the largest cities in Westeros in population.
Due to its huge size, Yi Ti is home to numerous disparate factions and forces. The Free Companies, or mercenary sellswords, are considerably influential. Many of the city-states cannot afford to maintain standing armies, so they instead hire swords for coin to fight their battles for them. Although traditional, this has been cited as ineffective, since sellswords are untrustworthy and may turn their cloak if another city offers a better price. The Unsullied of Astapor, famed warrior-eunuchs with a reputation for absolute loyalty and fearlessness, are popular for their staunch reliability in battle, but this comes with a price. The warrior-nomads of both the Dothraki and the Jogos Nhai are feared for their skill and savagery in battle.
In matters of religion, Essos is home to almost as many faiths as there are stars in the sky. Rising in popularity is the cult of the red god, R’hllor, Lord of Light, which has gained vast numbers of followers in recent centuries. The centre of this faith is in far Asshai, but there is also a significant temple to him in Volantis. The Moonsingers are the most popular religious sect in Braavos, as they helped found the city, but temples to almost every deity under the sun can be found in the city. Also popular are the Great Shepherd of Lhazar, the Lion of Night, the Many-Faced God, the Stone Cow of Faros, the Weeping Lady, Trios, Bakkalon the Pale Child, the Hooded Wayfarer and the Black Goat of Qohor, amongst many, many others.
Essos then is a vast land of many different peoples, gods and lands, a teeming and confusing morass of cultures and races whose beliefs are very alien to those of the Seven Kingdoms.
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Artist Spiral Horizon (aka Jason Deem) has updated his spectacular map of Earwa (from Scott Bakker’s Second Apocalypse series). The map includes new material revealed by Bakker as well as information from the new maps in the Aspect-Emperor books.
The map is enormous (at 300dpi and over 9MB in size) but well worth a look. This is now one of my favourite fantasy maps of all time, a real labour of love.
Atlas of Ice and Fire is on hiatus for a little while, but will be back later this year with the regional maps of Essos and the other continents. I’m also exploring other mapping options for my planned coverage of the actual novels themselves. The regional maps of Westeros exposed the limitations in resolution of the main base map I’ve been using for small-scale maps, so I’m going to be looking for better options before tackling that (extremely long-term) project.