(MCT) – And you thought last season was brutal.
Game of Thrones has not yet begun to slake its bloodlust as it enters its fourth, most anticipated, and most momentous season yet on Sunday (9 p.m. on HBO).
In fact, the opening act consists of a noble family's great sword being melted down and reforged into two far more lethal longswords by a clan that will wield them unsparingly.
For months, HBO has been banging the war drums for its most-watched, most-streamed (and most-pirated) series with promotional materials emblazoned "All men must die."
It's a grim forecast, but well in keeping with this titanic fantasy.
The more erudite fans of George R.R. Martin's book series A Song of Ice and Fire, from which Game of Thrones is adapted, may recognize "All men must die" as a translation of Valar morghulis, one of the few snatches of the ancient language High Valyrian to have survived.
But you don't have to be a scholar to wonder how much more carnage the continent of Westeros can bear.
The War of the Five Kings is over, leaving the survivors to sort through the rubble. Our bannermen, the Stark clan, were decimated by the cruel slaughter at Walder Frey's fortress that has come to be known as the Red Wedding.
Mance Rayder (Ciaran Hinds) is amassing armies of savage Wildings who threaten all of civilization. They in turn are being pushed south by the spectral White Walkers, a terrifying inhuman scourge, thought to have disappeared eons ago.
Evil alone seems to thrive, as the Lannisters' grip on the Iron Throne has never appeared more secure.
So what, you may ask, is the good news?
Well, "all men must die" could be interpreted as a promise of fate's even-handedness. After a year (or three) on Game of Thrones that were exceedingly tough on heroes, perhaps this will be a season of reckoning, when the karmic score is evened and the wicked are called to task.
Or more likely, now that we're familiar with how the wheels of Martin's dark fatalism turn, new champions will emerge, only to be cut down.
In any event, let us reset the game board so we know where the major players are as Season 4 begins.
Jon Snow (Kit Harington) has returned to the Night's Watch, but he faces some dire charges, including the murder of senior Ranger Qhorin Halfhand (Simon Armstrong) as well as not only consorting but sleeping with the enemy (Rose Leslie's Ygritte). Guilty on both counts. And at Castle Black, their idea of a court martial ends in execution.
Across the eastern sea, Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) continues to roll up city-states as she builds a mighty army to conquer King's Landing. The Khaleesi is finding her captious generals easier to control than her dragons, which are rapidly growing in size and will.
(Trivia tidbit: Daenerys is one of the few characters in this sprawling saga with a working familiarity of High Valyrian.)
Sado-boy-King Joffrey (Jack Gleeson) is preparing for his wedding to Lady Margaery (Natalie Dormer). We all know how festive these ceremonies can be in Westeros so . . . fingers crossed. How would you like to have the Queen Regent, Cersei (Lena Headey), as a mother-in-law?
A special envoy will be attending the nuptials from the House of Martell: Prince Oberyn (newcomer Pedro Pascal). Known as the Red Viper, the Prince is a very dangerous man with an unquenchable vendetta against the Lannisters.
At least Joffrey's impending nuptials mean he has largely ceased tormenting his former fiancee, Sansa (Sophie Turner). She has been married off, instead, to his uncle, Tyrion (Peter Dinklage). And while Tyrion has been doing his very best by her, chivalry is not his strong suit.
Sansa's younger sister, Arya (Maisie Williams), meanwhile, has been scooped up by the Hound (Rory McCann), who reckons she'll fetch a nice ransom. They make an odd couple, sharing a horse through the chaos of the Riverlands.
Last season's vagabond pair, Jaime Lannister (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Brienne (Gwendoline Christie), are back in court. But mainly as objects of ridicule. Deride them at your own risk, King's Landers.
As for Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen), his fate is too pitiful to consider. And what of Littlefinger (Aiden Gillen)? He's far too dangerous a piece to lose sight of.
The narrative arc for this fourth season is taken from the latter portion of A Storm of Swords, the third (and arguably most eventful) book in Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire ring.
The action in Books 4 and 5, A Feast for Crows and A Dance With Dragons, essentially takes place simultaneously. It is presumed they will be folded together into Season 5.
That leaves the producers of Games of Thrones hoping and praying that Martin will hustle up The Winds of Winter, which he is currently working on, so they can have Season 6 ready in 2016.
Anyone who has ever seen the gnomish author knows he doesn't appear to be someone you could rush through breakfast, much less a 1,000-page artistic obsession.
Even if he hits that deadline, Martin would have to gain crazy momentum for the final book, A Dream of Spring, so they can all finish together -- seven books and seven seasons -- in 2017.
But let's not borrow trouble from the future. A full season of battles and brothels, of duplicity and death, awaits. And as they say in High Valyrian, all men must watch.
Game of Thrones
8 p.m. Sunday on HBO