History of Thrones is our series where we examine important historical events and people from the complex and controversial past of Westeros, ones that might tell us something about the story going forward on Game of Thrones. However be warned, if you try to avoid theories and events from the novel like Cersei trying to avoid fighting the dead, you might consider them spoilers.
You can find all other History of Thrones entries here.
Cersei didn't get her elephants in Game of Thrones season eight premiere, but she did get arguably the greatest, most reliable mercenary army in the world, when Euron Greyjoy delivered Harry Strickland and the Golden Company from Essos. Can she trust soldiers who only fight for money when her enemies have dragons, both alive and undead? And are they enough to withstand either the living or dead when they descend from the North?
SELLSWORD COMPANIES: SOLDIERS LOYAL TO GOLD
Cersei lied about fighting the White Walkers alongside Daenerys and Jon Snow and so she can prepare for whichever enemy—living or dead—remains after the Great War. A big part of her plan involves using the Iron Bank's money to hire the famous Essos mercenary army the Golden Company and its 20,000 fighting men.
Who are they though? Will they fight when they see their enemy is either a Dothraki horde flanked by dragons or an army of the dead? The answers to those questions might be found in the track record of some of the most famous mercenary forces in the known world.
Sellswords are fighters/soldiers/warriors/knights available for hire (they "sell" their swords), like Bronn who only fights for gold and riches, not because he has sworn allegiance to any House or person. Bronn never vowed to defend Tyrion, Jaime, or the Lannisters, they pay him each time, and he is free to go when he has completed his services (or even before if he thinks he's likely to die). That's why Tyrion used to tell him he would beat any price Cersei offered him to betray him (a promise Tyrion better hope Bronn and his crossbow remembers). Compare this to Brienne of Tarth who swore sacred oaths to protect Renly Baratheon and Catelyn Stark, and now does the same for the Stark girls (though not for House Stark). She would be violating her oath and foregoing her honor if she left their service.
There are also men known as freeriders, who latch on to a force often in the hope they will be formally taken in by that lord. They aren't official members of the army and they are unpaid, but they get fed and are able to keep their plunder. Hedge knights (knights with no sworn allegiance who travel the land signing up for temporary service) are a type of freerider, though the term does not have the connotation befitting a knight.
Sellswords are said to have no loyalty, and free riders no discipline—neither of which are a compliment.
(Yes, there are sellsails too, pirates and smugglers who can be hired, the way Davos contracted Salladhor Saan to fight for Stannis. Saan was a typical sellsword though, because he abandoned the cause when things didn't look good for Stannis.)
But when you require a large army you don't need to hire a bunch of individual mercenaries, you can hire an entire sellsword company, like Cersei is doing with the Golden Company.
They were far from the only one she could have turned to - although arguably the greatest of them all is no longer on the market, because the Unsullied were liberated by and fight for Daenerys. While not a traditional sellsword company, they were still soldiers for hire, and their commitment to their masters was unquestioned. While the Unsullied's skills on the show have sometimes been underwhelming (they are nearly invincible in the novels), they are so disciplined they are one of the few forces to ever defeat the Dothraki, when three thousand of them withstood an attack at Qohor by a khalasar of over 50,000 men.
Slavery is outlawed in Westeros, but it's doubtful Cersei would have cared about that. She likely would have "freed" them in name only before making them fight for her.
But true sellsword companies are not loyal slaves, they are free men who sign contracts (that's why they are also called "free companies"). Groups like the Long Lances, the Company of the Cat, the Bright Banners, the Stormbreakers, and the Company of the Rose fight for whomever pays them, which means their allegiance can flipped by a higher bidder, or they can abandon their contracts if defeat looks certain.
Those with the best fighters and who are most likely to honor their contracts come with the highest prices. Although, as was the case with the Second Sons, they will follow their leader for other reasons—like if he swears allegiance to a beautiful queen.
The Second Sons, currently led by Daario Naharis, are one of the oldest, most-established mercenary forces in Essos, founded hundreds of years ago. They are well-armed, have emerged victorious in some well-known battles in Essos, but aren't as respected as much as the Golden Company.
Nor is a more recently formed army known as the Windblown, who are only 30 years old. The company, made up of a combined two thousand mounted men and foot soldiers, are led by the Tattered Prince, who fled Pentos after being crowned the new prince by the city's magisters. (If you're wondering why he'd run from that position, the last one had just been beheaded.) Deserters are treated harshly, either by having a foot removed or by visiting the company's torturer.
But the most respected of the free companies is the one Cersei has hired, the Golden Company. They were founded by a Targaryen great bastard of King Aegon the Unworthy, the infamous Aegor "Bittersteel" Rivers. You can read all about him and the circumstances surrounding the founding of the company (around 80 years before the start of Game of Thrones) in this past History of Thrones, but he fled Westeros after his brother Daemon Blackfyre lost a Targaryen civil war for the Iron Throne. After a year with the Second Sons Bittersteel started his own company to keep all of the rest of the exiled lords and knights of Westeros together.
They aren't just the biggest and most expensive of all the free companies because of their impressive skills in war, it's because unlike every other sellsword forces they have never broken a contract. Their motto is "our word is gold," and they live up to it.
At least they always had until recently, because in the novels they just broke a contract for the first time ever. They abandoned their deal with the Free City of Myr. Originally they were to fight for Daenerys (who is still in Slaver's Bay in the books), but once they found she was still in Meereen they decided to invade Westeros instead, having declared for the supposed lost son of Rhaegar Targaryen, Aegon VI known as Young Griff (his other son named Aegon, not Jon). They might have been founded by a rebel of House Targaryen, but the blood of the dragon is still the blood of the dragon, and this supposed secret Aegon could be a way to finally return home the same Daenerys has on the show.
But at this point, the possibly/likely fake Aegon will never appear on the show, so does the Cersei of HBO have to worry about the Golden Company's long ties to House Targaryen? If their history is introduced maybe, because she might very well have hired an enormous force who has been waiting for the perfect opportunity to return to Westeros alongside their estranged family, and what better time to do that than when a Targaryen has hatched dragons and united the Dothraki, Unsullied, and the King in the North behind her.
Of course there are only a few episodes left in the entire series, and there are bigger, deadlier things going on in the Realm. There might not be enough time on the show to give any of the Golden Company's backstory for them, so on Game of Thrones they might be nothing more than the biggest, best, most dependable sellsword company Cersei could buy.
That would mean their impeccable track record of honoring their contracts would make them a much safer investment than anyone other mercenaries, because while sellswords are only loyal to money and their own pockets, what makes the Golden Company rich is living up to their promise.
But what good is gold if you can't spend it? And what does your word get you when you've been slaughtered by every Dothraki in the world, or burned by dragonflame in your armor, or face being the newest member of the Night King's army of the dead?
Jaime convinced Randyll Tarly to fight for House Lannister because they faced a foreign invader who posed an existential risk. Cersei might not be asking men who only fight for gold to face an even greater challenge. What will keep them standing when certain doom approaches?
Cersei's money bought her the best soldiers money can buy, but no amount of gold can buy you back your life. And the Night King doesn't have pay for his soldiers.