My daddy used to say the only thing I was any good at was runnin’ away. Wasn’t my fault I grew up on his stories about the fuckin’ loup-garou and vampires hiding behind the Spanish moss in the cypress trees.
Wasn’t till 1924 I realized sometimes people invent monsters just to cast themselves as heroes.
I was 21 when I learned what it was to run from something real.
“Child,” he said, “come sit with me. I have a tale to tell you.” “What kind of tale?” she asked, wary. “The tale of our beginnings. If you would be one of us, you had best know who we are and how
we came to be. Men may whisper of the Faceless Men of Braavos, but we are older than the
Secret City. Before the Titan rose, before the Unmasking of Uthero, before the Founding, we
were. We have flowered in Braavos amongst these northern fogs, but we first took root in
Valyria, amongst the wretched slaves who toiled in the deep mines beneath the Fourteen Flames
that lit the Freehold’s nights of old. Most mines are dank and chilly places, cut from cold dead
stone, but the Fourteen Flames were living mountains with veins of molten rock and hearts of fire. So the mines of old Valyria were always hot, and they grew hotter as the shafts were driven
deeper, ever deeper. The slaves toiled in an oven. The rocks around them were too hot to touch.
The air stank of brimstone and would sear their lungs as they breathed it. The soles of their feet
would burn and blister, even through the thickest sandals. Sometimes, when they broke through a
wall in search of gold, they would find steam instead, or boiling water, or molten rock. Certain
shafts were cut so low that the slaves could not stand upright, but had to crawl or bend. And
there were wyrms in that red darkness too.” “Earthworms?” she asked, frowning. “Firewyrms. Some say they are akin to dragons, for wyrms breathe fire too. Instead of soaring
through the sky, they bore through stone and soil. If the old tales can be believed, there were
wyrms amongst the Fourteen Flames even before the dragons came. The young ones are no
larger than that skinny arm of yours, but they can grow to monstrous size and have no love for
men.” “Did they kill the slaves?”
“Burnt and blackened corpses were oft found in shafts where the rocks were cracked or full of
holes. Yet still the mines drove deeper. Slaves perished by the score, but their masters did not
care. Red gold and yellow gold and silver were reckoned to be more precious than the lives of
slaves, for slaves were cheap in the old Freehold. During war, the Valyrians took them by the
thousands. In times of peace they bred them, though only the worst were sent down to die in the
“Didn’t the slaves rise up and fight?”
“Some did,” he said. “Revolts were common in the mines, but few accomplished much. The
dragonlords of the old Freehold were strong in sorcery, and lesser men defied them at their peril.
The first Faceless Man was one who did.”
“Who was he?” Arya blurted, before she stopped to think.
“No one,” he answered. “Some say he was a slave himself. Others insist he was a freeholder’s
son, born of noble stock. Some will even tell you he was an overseer who took pity on his
charges. The truth is, no one knows. Whoever he was, he moved amongst the slaves and would
hear them at their prayers. Men of a hundred different nations labored in the mines, and each
prayed to his own god in his own tongue, yet all were praying for the same thing. It was release
they asked for, an end to pain. A small thing, and simple. Yet their gods made no answer, and
their suffering went on. Are their gods all deaf? he wondered… until a realization came upon
him, one night in the red darkness.
“All gods have their instruments, men and women who serve them and help to work their will
on earth. The slaves were not crying out to a hundred different gods, as it seemed, but to one god
with a hundred different faces… and he was that god’s instrument. That very night he chose the
most wretched of the slaves, the one who had prayed most earnestly for release, and freed him
from his bondage. The first gift had been given.”
Arya drew back from him. “He killed the slave?” That did not sound right. “He should have
killed the masters!”
“He would bring the gift to them as well… but that is a tale for another day, one best shared
with no one.” He cocked his head. “And who are you, child?”
“No one.” “A lie.”
There are a few things that pop out to me about this passage:
Arya’s concern for the slaves appears multiple times:
“Did they kill the slaves?”
“Didn’t the slaves rise up and fight?”
“He killed the slave?” That did not sound right. “He should have killed the masters!”
Now, obviously the Kindly Man is framing this story about slaves, so her asking after them is hardly surprising, but it’s also important to note that Arya has always cared about those society has left behind, beginning with Jon, then Mycah, then Gendry, Hot Pie, Lommy Greenhands, and Weasel. (This is something that later reappears when she “becomes” Cat of the Canals.) I think this is in no small part because she’s often felt pushed out of traditional society since she never found that it allowed space for her. But I also think there’s an element of identifying with the slaves here: for the majority of her time in A Clash of Kings, Arya was a slave. She is never called so explicitly, but being abducted and forced (violently, and through fear of pain and death) to serve and without any compensation is slavery. Regardless of that fact, their pain is an important part of this story, and Arya feels that acutely.
Furthermore, when she asks “Didn’t the slaves rise up and fight?” she’s given the answer that she wants:
“Some did,” he said. “Revolts were common in the mines, but few accomplished much. The dragonlords of the old Freehold were strong in sorcery, and lesser men defied them at their peril. The first Faceless Man was one who did.”
And of course, she’s excited about this. It’s what she wants to hear, and he’s framing this story so that she will have the answer she wants, a champion of the people who will come and lead them to freedom. (Remember the girl who idolized Nymeria when she was young, a warrior queen who brought her people away from danger–the danger of these same dragon lords.)
And this first Faceless Man is everything that Arya wants him to be.
“Who was he?” Arya blurted, before she stopped to think. “No one,” he answered. “Some say he was a slave himself. Others insist he was a freeholder’s son, born of noble stock.
Interesting that these are both points that Arya can identify with–someone who has been forced into slavery and someone who was “born of noble stock.” (Though I think the “noble stock” would obvi trump the former in Arya’s case.) Nonetheless, she sees herself in this champion, which is part of her excitement at his existence, excitement which might then flow over into this organization that was of his making.
Some will even tell you he was an overseer who took pity on his charges. The truth is, no one knows. Whoever he was, he moved amongst the slaves and would hear them at their prayers.
Again–Arya as someone who, as Sansa said in A Game of Thrones “would make friends with anybody” (Mycah, Gendry, Hot Pie, Lommy, Weasel, Denyo, and later on the commons of Braavos) is going to identify with this. Arya’s brand of friendship consists very much of empathizing with the struggles of her friends when she learns of them.
Men of a hundred different nations labored in the mines, and each prayed to his own god in his own tongue, yet all were praying for the same thing. It was release they asked for, an end to pain. A small thing, and simple. Yet their gods made no answer, and their suffering went on.
And, of course, Arya has her own disappointed experience with the Gods not hearing her prayers–another point of identity (or perhaps me just doing my wild-extrapolation thing):
Her hand slid beneath her cloak and found Needle in its sheath. She tightened her fingers around the grip, squeezing as hard as she had ever squeezed anything. Please, gods, keep him safe, she prayed. Don’t let them hurt my father. (A Game of Thrones)
Was that enough? Maybe she should pray aloud if she wanted the old gods to hear. Maybe she should pray longer. Sometimes her father had prayed a long time, she remembered. But the old gods had never helped him. Remembering that made her angry. “You should have saved him,” she scolded the tree. “He prayed to you all the time. I don’t care if you help me or not. I don’t think you could even if you wanted to.” (A Clash of Kings)
In any event, you have Arya all jazzed up and excited and then there’s the twist:
Arya drew back from him. “He killed the slave?” That did not sound right.
Of course it didn’t–this is Ned Stark’s Little Girl, who even when trying to cope with her own abuse and trauma instills a sense of justice for wrongs done (to her and just as often to others) in her kill list. The fact of someone turning on the powerless and killing them, rather than saving them, goes against everything that Arya believes to be true–that sense of righteousness that she learned at her father’s table and which she has not shed in her heart of hearts because even as the world falls apart around her, she still has a sense of how goodness is supposed to be. And someone hearing prayers that ask for “release” and interpreting that release as “death” is not how Arya sees the end of this story going.
“He should have killed the masters!”
(See what I mean?)
“He would bring the gift to them as well… but that is a tale for another day, one best shared with no one.” He cocked his head. “And who are you, child?” “No one.” “A lie.”
Both a secret for the depths of the order and one that undoubtedly would mean death to the one who spread it. And as much as Arya wants to know that story, so long as she casts moral judgement on the choice of this first Faceless Men, applying her own code of justice to his actions, she isn’t going to hear it. Arya’s ideals, her code of justice do not and will not ever line up with that of the faceless men.