A mercenary is an independent soldier who has no official allegiance to any lord or country, but who instead hires out his services for payment. They are most commonly known by the term "Sellsword", as they sell their services with a sword.
The quality and reputation of sellswords ranges across a very wide spectrum: they are often professional soldiers, moving from one temporary contract to the next, though particularly poor-quality sellswords might just be a gang of untrained thugs. However, even sellswords who receive no "formal" training make a living by engaging in combat on a regular basis. Thus even a mercenary that is initially low-born and without expensive training will gain a great amount of combat experience ("hands on" training) throughout his career. Provided that he survives that long, a veteran sellsword may become a highly skilled fighter. A sellsword that has significantly distinguished himself in combat may even be rewarded by being dubbed a knight, though this is uncommon.
Songs of chivalry and romance often portray war as a glamorous series of duels between knights in shining armor, fighting for love, honor, and homeland. In gritty and dirty reality, a large extent of the day to day combat in real wars in both Westeros and Essos is fought by hired sellswords, fighting only for money.
Types of Mercenaries
- "I'm a sellsword, I sell my sword. I don't lend it out to friends as a favor."
While mercenaries are often referred to as "Sellswords" as a catch-all term, this is strictly speaking only one subdivision of mercenary:
Sellswords are professional mercenary soldiers. They usually fight on foot, though they can actually also own horses and fight as mounted warriors.
- Bronn - a weathered, veteran sellsword of no particular fame but above-average skill, who is hired on by Tyrion Lannister as his bodyguard/enforcer. Bronn first earned his place at Tyrion's side by defeating Ser Vardis Egen, a knight and the captain of the guards at The Eyrie, in a trial by combat, thus demonstrating his impressive skills as an experienced sellsword. Bronn later fought so well in the Battle of the Blackwater that he received the reward many sellswords hope for, a knighthood.
- Daario Naharis - a sellsword from the Free City of Tyrosh, operating in Slaver's Bay.
Although mounted sellswords are sometimes called "freeriders", strictly speaking they are not the same thing. The difference is that true freeriders do not fight for payment, receiving only a share of the food supplies to sustain them and the promise of a share of the plunder (they are "riders" that fight for "free").Freeriders are usually a motley mix of two drastically different sources. Some freeriders are hedge knights, low-ranking freelance knights unattached to any noble House, and they are fighting for free because they hope that if they distinguish themselves in combat, they will be formally taken into a lord's service as a sworn sword. The other kind of freeriders are truly poor hangers-on, usually farm-boys whose homes were burnt out during the military campaign and who joined up with the army because they have nowhere else to go, and are only a step above camp followers. Either way, freeriders are rarely used in direct combat between armies, instead more often serving as scouts and foragers. They can see combat, but this usually takes the form of raids, burning down enemy villages as their own homes were once burned down.
- Lothor Brune - a freerider in the service of Lord Petyr "Littlefinger" Baelish of the Vale of Arryn.
Sellsails are mercenary sailors who engage in naval battles. Sellsails are the captain and crew of a boat, whose service is the actual operation of their vessel. Of course, the crews of many sellsword ships are also proficient in combat during boarding operations and coastal raids. Sellsails are quite frequently pirates, who have decided to make quick money by hiring out the services of their ships during a current conflict, and in return charging far more than they'd normally make in their usual raiding activities. During peacetime, they usually go right back to being regular pirates.
- Salladhor Saan - a flashy pirate-lord from Lys who commands a fleet of thirty ships, hired by Stannis Baratheon to supplement his own naval forces in the War of the Five Kings.
While many sellswords function independently of any larger organization, there are also many sellsword companies which hire out their services as a unit. Again, the quality of these sellsword companies varies across a wide spectrum. Some can be little more than poorly trained gangs of a few dozen men who have combined their strength. Major lords who want to supplement their armies with sellswords will prefer to hire a pre-assembled collection of sellswords rather than go through the trouble of hiring them one by one. The best sellsword companies are essentially small private armies, highly trained and serving under their own officers.While sellsword companies are encountered in Westeros, they are much more common in the city-states of Essos, particularly in the Free Cities and Slaver's Bay. The Seven Kingdoms are predominantly a feudal society, in which each lord raises soldiers from his own lands. In contrast, the Free Cities are an urban society, and thus better fitted to paying coin to mercenaries. Thus, the Free Cities and Slaver's Bay have a much more developed system and history of fielding professional mercenaries organized into independent companies for hire.
Notable Mercenary Companies:
In the books
In the A Song of Ice and Fire novels there are actually several more mercenary companies than have been revealed in the TV series so far, several of which have been condensed in adaptation by either changing them to groups of regular soldiers or by combining different sellsword companies into a single group; this was probably done to avoid confusing the TV audience with too many new names, i.e. a sellsword company hired by the Lannisters in the books is changed to simply a group of Lannister soldiers in the TV series. The allegiances of sellsword companies can at times be confusing even within the narrative of the books: mercenaries are a fickle bunch who easily change allegiances multiple times, depending on where the most gold is.
In the books, Yunkai actually hired two different sellsword companies to defend itself against Daenerys Targaryen, the Second Sons and the Stormcrows, but these were combined in the TV series, so all of the major mercenary captains are from a single company known as the Second Sons. In the books, the Second Sons are led by Mero (as in the TV series), while the Stormcrows are led by Prendahl na Ghezn, Sallor the Bald, and Daario Naharis. Daario killed Prendahl and Sallor to seize leadership of the Stormcrows, and then switched their loyalty to Daenerys. Meanwhile, Daenerys tricked Mero by giving him the large wagon full of wine he requested - for which he would consider, but not promise, to change sides. Daenerys then sent her forces to ambush the Second Sons that same night while Mero and his men were fall-over drunk on the wine she had gifted them, and most surrendered without a fight. Mero fled during the night and was later killed in a separate incident. The remaining Second Sons voted to have one of their other lieutenants, Brown Ben Plumm, serve as their new captain, and switched allegiances to Daenerys. In the TV series, Mero asked for the wagon of wine but curiously, there was no following ambush during the night as in the novel.
In the books, the Second Sons and Stormcrows consist of about 500 men each, for a total of one thousand mercenaries. The TV series not only combined the two mercenary companies, but doubled the total number of mercenaries from one thousand to two thousand.
The Brave Companions
During the third book, Jaime Lannister and Brienne of Tarth are captured by the infamous sellsword company known as the Brave Companions - and ironic name, as they aren't particularly brave and are most famous for horrifically torturing unarmed prisoners. They become a major set of antagonists in the storyline throughout the third and fourth novels. Their penchant for maiming their captives by amputating their arms and/or feet has led to them being dismissively nicknamed "the Footmen". The Brave Companions are the terror of two continents, infamous across Essos and Westeros as the most ill-reputed, vicious, and cruel sellsword company in existence. They are not well-known for being particularly skilled at arms, but rather are infamous for the atrocities they are willing to commit against the enemy's civilian population. They are normally active in Essos, particularly the Free Cities, but when the War of the Five Kings first broke out Tywin Lannister hired them and brought them to the Riverlands of Westeros, to burn out and terrorize the defenseless villages of the smallfolk loyal to his enemies. Even Gregor Clegane's men, including vicious torturers such as the Tickler, are considered to be not quite as despicable as the Brave Companions.
Moreover, the Brave Companions are composed of a veritable rogue's gallery of the absolute lowliest dregs of humanity, with an extremely diverse membership composed of the worst criminals from across the known world: cut throats, murderers, rustlers, rapers, Qohorik butchers, Ibbenese thieves, Dothraki thugs, Dornish vipers, Braavosi buggerers, a child-molesting Westerosi priest, and a psychotic jester. Their diverse and indeed outlandish appearance has led to them also being nicknamed the "Bloody Mummers" (mummers are a kind of wandering troupe of actors), though they think this nickname is insulting. Their leader is Vargo Hoat, a cruel man from Qohor who has a bad speech impediment that leaves him lisping and slobbering. Hoat enjoys cutting the hands and feet off of his captives with little or no provocation, particularly anyone who points out his speech impediment - which, given that his lisp is so bad that it truly makes his speech barely intelligible at times, means that Hoat and the Brave Companions leave piles of severed hands and feet in their wake.
In the second book, the Brave Companions decide to betray the Lannister forces holding Harrenhal when they discover that the eastern half of the Stark army commanded by Roose Bolton is advancing on the castle, and they'd rather be on the winning side. Hoat is rewarded for the betrayal by being named the (temporary) Lord of Harrenhal, which remains garrisoned by Roose Bolton and his army. After the Battle of the Blackwater, however, it starts to become clear that the Lannisters have gained the upper hand in the war, and Hoat fears - correctly - that Roose Bolton himself wants to end up on the winning side, and will betray Robb Stark to the Lannisters. If Bolton switched his allegiance to the Lannisters, he would hand over Hoat and the Brave Companions to Tywin so he could punish them for their betrayal. Thus when Hoat's men capture Jaime Lannister at the beginning of the third book, he has his men cut off Jaime's sword-hand, in the hope that this will drive a wedge between Jaime's father Tywin and Roose, as Tywin would presumably blame Bolton for the actions of the sellswords under his command. Unfortunately for Hoat, Roose decides to let Jaime continue on to King's Landing if in exchange he will tell his father the truth, that Roose was not responsible for his maiming at the hands of the Brave Companions. The result of maiming Jaime is only that Tywin is even angrier at the Brave Companions than he was before, and Bolton has even less reason to protect them from Tywin's wrath.
The TV series heavily condensed the entire subplot at Harrenhal, particularly how Arya Stark (with the help of Jaqen H'ghar) aided the capture of the castle by freeing all of the Northern prisoners held there, which spurred the Brave Companions to turn on their Lannister allies sooner than anticipated. Moreover, possibly because it would have involved introducing a very diverse set of characters (meaning too much time would need to be spent designing each of their different cultures), the Brave Companions were cut out of the TV series. The character of "Vargo Hoat" was functionally included in the TV series, but was changed to simply be a House Bolton soldier named Locke - keeping the general idea from the books that Vargo Hoat was in service to Roose Bolton at the time Jaime encountered him. Loosely, the Brave Companions were condensed down from being a mercenary company to simply being a particularly vicious group of Bolton soldiers led by Locke.
Locke's motivation for cutting off Jaime's sword-hand in the TV series was loosely the same: partially it was just because he's a vicious monster who wanted to intimidate Jaime, while partially it was because maiming him would prove that he would never ransom Jaime to Tywin. As it turns out, of course, his commander Roose Bolton realizes that Tywin is winning the war at this point and will eventually hunt down those responsible for maiming his son, so he agrees to let Jaime go to King's Landing if he promises to assure Tywin that Roose himself was not responsible for the loss of his sword-hand.
In the books, Qyburn the ex-maester was a member of the Brave Companions, though he only joined the group as a means to survive, and instead of being a fighter or torturer simply served as the group's primary healer. As in the TV series, he is tasked with treating the infected stump of Jaime's right arm; he remarks that staying with Hoat and the Brave Companions means he has gained much experience in treating the amputated limbs of their victims. In a minor change, because the Brave Companions do not exist in the TV series, Qyburn was simply a prisoner encountered at Harrenhal by the Northern army when they took the castle, who then entered into the service of Roose Bolton. In the books, Robb Stark did not personally got to Harrenhal so Qyburn never encountered him, while in the TV series Robb accompanied Roose to capture Harrenhal. The TV series condensed this so that the Lannisters simply abandoned Harrenhal rather than let Robb bleed their forces more, however Robb left Harrenhal immediately afterwards to attend his grandfather Hoster Tully's funeral. Either way, in the books Qyburn leaves the Brave Companions when Roose sends him to accompany Jaime on his way to King's Landing, to continue to care for his injury.
- Mercenary at A Wiki of Ice and Fire (MAJOR spoilers from the books)