The Faceless Men, a group of expert assassins from Braavos who can change their physical features seemingly at will. They originated, according to the Kindly Man, in the hellish mines of the Valyrian Freehold.
“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.” – AFFC Arya II
Certainly a horrific existence that would inspire many revolts against the Dragonlords. But none succeeded until the birth of the first Faceless Man.
“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.” – AFFC Arya II
There’s an oddness of logic to the story the Kindly Man is telling. He is saying that slaves died constantly from the horribly unsafe conditions they worked in. But later on he relates that the slaves prayed for “release they asked for, an end to pain” clearly asking for death. And the first Faceless Man gave a slave the gift, the gift of death. The inconsistency is that he just told Arya it is not difficult for slaves to die. It happens regularly. Assisted suicide could be considered a gift however it’s not something you would need to pray to gods for. Why were these slaves begging for death that was so readily available around every corner? And their prayers would be answered in this scenario as they would die sooner rather than later. Why were their prayers considered unanswered when they can all see that death is everywhere in the mines?
Go with me on this. The biggest game changer in ASOIAF has been the ability to bring people back from the dead. The Others, in all their mystery and oddness, have one big power in that they can reanimate the dead as wights. Their unthinking, tireless, and deadly army of the damned. There are similar stories all over the world. The Iron Born tell stories of how the dead never die, that they rise again harder and stronger. The faith of R’hllor has the ability, most recently put on display with the 6 resurrections of Beric Dondarrion by Thoros of Myr and the resurrection of Catelyn Stark, to return people to a cursed half life. With these traditions and very real examples in the world, perhaps we can make sense of the story of the Kindly Man.
The Valyrians were masters of sorcery. They wove magic that harnessed the Fourteen Flames, the volcanoes of their homeland, reigned in dragons, use glass candles to see across the world, deformed stone like it was clay into any shape, and who knows what other powers. It’s not out of the question that they were aware that necromancy was possible. I propose that they not only knew about it, they utilized it as an economic tool.
The Fourteen Flames and their mines are unsurvivable for very long. While the Valyrians absolutely did go to war to acquire new slaves for their mines and blood magic, it feels like a big ask for these operations to remain functioning with the conditions the slaves endure. However, if you could bring a slave back from the dead and have their wounds healed using magic, that’s one less person you have to capture, put on a boat, and care for until you leave them to die in the mines. From Beric Dondarrion’s example, there’s seemingly no limit on how many times you can bring someone back from the dead as long as they as reasonably still intact.
the burning sword snapped in two, and the Hound’s cold steel plowed into Lord Beric’s flesh where his shoulder joined his neck and clove him clean down to the breastbone. The blood came rushing out in a hot black gush. – ASOS Arya VI
Beric returned from being nearly cut in half in less than a few minutes, healed and relatively unharmed physically. This would be make a cruel and brutally efficient way of keeping the slave mines populated if applied, and from all we know it is possible. Workers could be killed almost for any reason at all and be ready to work again almost instantly. There is though, a terrible downside to all this. Beric is losing his mind and identity more and more after each return from the black.
Can I dwell on what I scarce remember? I held a castle on the Marches once, and there was a woman I was pledged to marry, but I could not find that castle today, nor tell you the color of that woman’s hair. Who knighted me, old friend? What were my favorite foods? It all fades. Sometimes I think I was born on the bloody grass in that grove of ash, with the taste of fire in my mouth and a hole in my chest. Are you my mother, Thoros? – ASOS Arya VII
The slaves would eventually remember only pain, fire, and brimstone as they were brought back over and over and over by the blood mages. Their few happy memories and their lives before the fourteen flames wash away. And this is what I propose the gift the first Faceless Man gave the slaves was. He found a way to make them unable to be resurrected again, whether by going over some threshold of mutilation they couldn’t be brought back from or a form of sorcery and gave them the gift of eternal rest. After all, even if you killed yourself the blood mages could return you to life all over again. Imagine if you can the hell these people would be put through. Just endless pain, work, and torment at the hands of people so powerful you have no hope of resisting. A fate as cruel as the Greek Titan Prometheus, punished by the Gods for giving man fire by having eagles constantly rip out his entrails only to be unable to die and healed endlessly so the eagles can do it all over again.
As for the faceless man himself, he may have been brought back so many times he truly did not have a personality or memories anymore. Truly No One, a blank slate without an identity or a past they can remember. And this fully informs why they continued to hunt Valyria from their secret city and claim they destroyed the civilization. You can’t let the Valyrians continue to destroy souls in the worst way possible, stripping them of all they are for base monetary gain. It had to be stopped at any cost. However, as Thoros of Myr says, “We can’t defend the people without weapons, horses and food. And we can’t get weapons, horses and food without gold.”They’d need income and a way to finance their secret war. A high priced assassin’s guild would let them hone their craft while gaining the resources they’d need to infiltrate and destroy the Freehold. All men must die.