On House of the Dragon, the first Small Council meeting began with Ser Corlys Velaryon warning of a growing concern in the Stepstones. King Viserys and Ser Otto Hightower took the Lord of Tide’s concerns “under advisement,” but not seriously. Now the show’s second episode has revealed why ignoring the problem won’t make it go away. No matter how much Viserys wants to avoid war, it seems inevitable, with or without his blessing. If he won’t act his brother Daemon just might. Exactly where are the Stepstones, though, and why are they so important in House of the Dragon?
And what is the risk of Westeros confronting the Triarchy currently ruling over those desolate rocks? Despite being undesirable land, the location of those islands makes them highly valuable. And that’s been true since the First Men came to Westeros.
What are the Stepstones? Where Are the Stepstones Located?
The Stepstones consists of more than a dozen small islands that separate the Narrow Sea to the north and the Summer Sea to the south. They run from Dorne’s eastern coast in Westeros to the Disputed Lands on Essos’s southwest shore.
The chain’s most notable island is its biggest, Bloodstone. However, that’s a fitting moniker for the Stepstones at large. Unto themselves the stony and inhospitable islands are almost entirely worthless. They’re also constantly savaged by powerful storms. And despite being so close to Westeros, they’re under constant threat by pirates, which often claim them as their own domain. (That’s why Viserys was initially pleased to learn the Triarchy had begun eliminating the pirate problem.) But despite all that, the Stepstones’ history during House Targaryen’s time in Westeros is one of war.
And their importance dates back to before their creation during Westeros’ first great conflict.
Who Created the Stepstones and Why Were They Made?
Before we get into House of the Dragon happenings, let’s look at how the Stepstones came to be. Ancient legend say the Stepstones were once part of the Arm of Dorne, a southern land passage that ran from Westeros to Essos. It is A Song of Ice and Fire‘s answer to the Bering Strait that once connected Alaska and Russia. And like the Bering Strait, the Arm of Dorne made a great migration between continents possible before disappearing under the waves. It’s believed the First Men came to Westeros across that land-bridge. When war eventually broke out between men and the Children of the Forest, the Children turned their attention to the Arm to try and prevent even more of their populous enemy from arriving.
The greenseers of the Children used powerful magic to flood and splinter the Arm of Dorne turned the land-bridge into the Stepstones. (A name they get because they look like stepping stones between the two continents.) The Children’s desperate ploy wasn’t enough to defeat the First Men, though. And the Arm’s destruction only made its remnants more important because it opened up a pathway to connect more parts of the world.
The Doom of Valyria and the War History at the Stepstones
For thousands of years the Stepstones fell under the domain of Old Valyria’s dragonlords. The Freehold turned an island just north of the archipelago into its eastern most military outpost of Tyrosh. But slavers and pirates still occasionally operated out the Stepstones. And sometimes they brought conflict to the eastern Kingdoms of Westeros, including to Houses Stark and Arryn.
When the Doom came to Valyria, though, it unleashed chaos in Essos known as the “Century of Blood Pirates,” free from the fear dragonflame would consume their wooden ships, overran the Stepstones. Meanwhile, Valyrian outposts along Essos’ western coast—as well as independent Braavos— became known as the nine Free Cities. But rather than unite, war broke out almost immediately between some of those independent city-states. They fought many battles over what is known as the Disputed Lands in mainline southwestern Essos.
But their battles also involved frequently fighting over the highly valuable islands. The Stepstones became more than a haven for pirates and outcasts. It become one of the most important shipping lanes in the world. Anyone who hoped to earn their riches through trade needed to pass through them. And that meant whomever controlled them collected a fortune of tolls.
Tyrosh, not formally part of the Stepstones despite its close proximity to them, often fought over the islands. Sometimes Targaryen kings and Dornish princes also found themselves involved in the chain’s disputes, too. ( Dorne remained independent from the Targaryen’s realm until 184 AC.) However, no Free Cities warred over the Stepstones more than Myr and Lys.
War was the constant state of the Stepstones for two hundred years, from the Doom to King Viserys reign. Alliances came and went, battles were won and lost, pirates and lords alike laid claim to the islands, and yet no one ever held them long. The Stepstones’ lack of permanent keeps and stone structures is a silent testament to the brief reigns of its many rulers. But even a temporary King of the Stepstones can cause major problems.
Why Is House of the Dragon‘s Triarchy a Dangerous Problem?
No one, not even a Targaryen dragon lord, wants to deal with pirates. It’s why Viserys thought his Small Council should celebrate news of the Triarchy dispatching pirates on the Stepstones. The Triarchy is a powerful alliance of three Free Cities who often fight each other: Lys, Myr, and Tyrosh. A ruler hoping to avoid war can formally parlay and negotiate with them. Especially since the Triarchy is also an alliance no king wants to war with. Even with his family’s dragons, Viserys’ knows many of his subjects would die any ensuing conflict with the Free Cities.
But the problem the Realm now faces has nothing to do with the Myrish prince Craghas Drahar and his ghastly war crimes. The Crabfeeder’s real transgression against Westeros is damaging the pockets and reputation of its most powerful seafarer. Ser Corlys, the Realm’s most accomplished sailor and master of ships, a man who made his family the richest in Westeros during his lifetime thanks to his prowess on the seas, lost four ships and their men to Craghas. He isn’t content with Viserys sending emissaries to the Free Cities and awaiting a diplomatic solution. Lord Velaryon wants to send a show of force to the Stepstones, even if it means Westeros goes to open war with the Free Cities for the first time.
Ser Corlys not only oversees the royal fleet, his house provides it. And he knows better than anyone that if the Stepstones and their shipping lanes fall into the wrong hands it could “beggar” every trader in the Realm. None more than him. No ship will be able to pass by or even near the islands without paying a hefty price to Craghas, whether the cost comes in gold or lost ships. It’s no wonder the Lord of Tides has turned to another Targaryen for help, a prince willing to embrace war. And if Daemon and his dragon answer Ser Corlys’s call on House of the Dragon, the Stepstones could serve as his own stepping stone to the power and respect he craves.
Mikey Walsh is a staff writer at Nerdist. You can follow him on Twitter at @burgermike. And also anywhere someone is ranking the Targaryen kings.