Fire & Blood (A Targaryen History #1)

As the armies came together, the stormlands proved true to their name. A steady rain began to fall that morning, and by midday it had turned into a howling gale. King Argilac’s lords bannermen urged him to delay his attack until the next day, in hopes the rain would pass, but the Storm King outnumbered the Conquerors almost two to one, and had almost four times as many knights and heavy horses. The sight of the Targaryen banners flapping sodden above his own hills enraged him, and the battle-seasoned old warrior did not fail to note that the rain was blowing from the south, into the faces of the Targaryen men on their hills. So Argilac the Arrogant gave the command to attack, and the battle known to history as the Last Storm began.

The fighting lasted well into the night, a bloody business and far less one-sided than Aegon’s conquest of Harrenhal. Thrice Argilac the Arrogant led his knights against the Baratheon positions, but the slopes were steep and the rains had turned the ground soft and muddy, so the warhorses struggled and foundered, and the charges lost all cohesion and momentum. The stormlanders fared better when they sent their spearmen up the hills on foot. Blinded by the rain, the invaders did not see them climbing until it was too late, and the wet bowstrings of the archers made their bows useless. One hill fell, and then another, and the fourth and final charge of the Storm King and his knights broke through the Baratheon center…only to come upon Queen Rhaenys and Meraxes. Even on the ground, the dragon proved formidable. Dickon Morrigen and the Bastard of Blackhaven, commanding the vanguard, were engulfed in dragonflame, along with the knights of King Argilac’s personal guard. The warhorses panicked and fled in terror, crashing into riders behind them, and turning the charge into chaos. The Storm King himself was thrown from his saddle.

Yet still Argilac continued to battle. When Orys Baratheon came down the muddy hill with his own men, he found the old king holding off half a dozen men, with as many corpses at his feet. “Stand aside,” Baratheon commanded. He dismounted, so as to meet the king on equal footing, and offered the Storm King one last chance to yield. Argilac cursed him instead. And so they fought, the old warrior king with his streaming white hair and Aegon’s fierce, black-bearded Hand. Each man took a wound from the other, it was said, but in the end the last of the Durrandon got his wish, and died with a sword in his hand and a curse on his lips. The death of their king took all heart out of the stormlanders, and as the word spread that Argilac had fallen, his lords and knights threw down their swords and fled.

For a few days it was feared that Storm’s End might suffer the same fate as Harrenhal, for Argilac’s daughter Argella barred her gates at the approach of Orys Baratheon and the Targaryen host, and declared herself the Storm Queen. Rather than bend the knee, the defenders of Storm’s End would die to the last man, she promised when Queen Rhaenys flew Meraxes into the castle to parley. “You may take my castle, but you will win only bones and blood and ashes,” she announced…but the soldiers of the garrison proved less eager to die. That night they raised a peace banner, threw open the castle gate, and delivered Lady Argella gagged, chained, and naked to the camp of Orys Baratheon.

It is said that Baratheon unchained her with his own hands, wrapped his cloak around her, poured her wine, and spoke to her gently, telling her of her father’s courage and the manner of his death. And afterward, to honor the fallen king, he took the arms and words of the Durrandon for his own. The crowned stag became his sigil, Storm’s End became his seat, and Lady Argella his wife.

With both the riverlands and stormlands now under the control of Aegon the Dragon and his allies, the remaining kings of Westeros saw plainly that their own turns were coming. At Winterfell, King Torrhen called his banners; given the vast distances in the North, he knew that assembling an army would take time. Queen Sharra of the Vale, regent for her son Ronnel, took refuge in the Eyrie, looked to her defenses, and sent an army to the Bloody Gate, gateway to the Vale of Arryn. In her youth Queen Sharra had been lauded as “the Flower of the Mountain,” the fairest maid in all the Seven Kingdoms. Perhaps hoping to sway Aegon with her beauty, she sent him a portrait and offered herself to him in marriage, provided he named her son Ronnel as his heir. Though the portrait did finally reach him, it is not known whether Aegon Targaryen ever replied to her proposal; he had two queens already, and Sharra Arryn was by then a faded flower, ten years his elder.

Meanwhile, the two great western kings had made common cause and assembled their own armies, intent on putting an end to Aegon for good and all. From Highgarden marched Mern IX of House Gardener, King of the Reach, with a mighty host. Beneath the walls of Castle Goldengrove, seat of House Rowan, he met Loren I Lannister, King of the Rock, leading his own host down from the westerlands. Together the Two Kings commanded the mightiest host ever seen in Westeros: an army fifty-five thousand strong, including some six hundred lords great and small and more than five thousand mounted knights. “Our iron fist,” boasted King Mern. His four sons rode beside him, and both of his young grandsons attended him as squires.

The Two Kings did not linger long at Goldengrove; a host of such size must remain on the march, lest it eat the surrounding countryside bare. The allies set out at once, marching north by northeast through tall grasses and golden fields of wheat.

Advised of their coming in his camp beside the Gods Eye, Aegon gathered his own strength and advanced to meet these new foes. He commanded only a fifth as many men as the Two Kings, and much of his strength was made up of men sworn to the riverlords, whose loyalty to House Targaryen was of recent vintage, and untested. With the smaller host, however, Aegon was able to move much more quickly than his foes. At the town of Stoney Sept, both his queens joined him with their dragons—Rhaenys from Storm’s End and Visenya from Crackclaw Point, where she had accepted many fervent pledges of fealty from the local lords. Together the three Targaryens watched from the sky as Aegon’s army crossed the headwaters of the Blackwater Rush and raced south.

The two armies came together amongst the wide, open plains south of the Blackwater, near to where the goldroad would run one day. The Two Kings rejoiced when their scouts returned to them and reported Targaryen numbers and dispositions. They had five men for every one of Aegon’s, it seemed, and the disparity in lords and knights was even greater. And the land was wide and open, all grass and wheat as far as the eye could see, ideal for heavy horse. Aegon Targaryen would not command the high ground, as Orys Baratheon had at the Last Storm; the ground was firm, not muddy. Nor would they be troubled by rain. The day was cloudless, though windy. There had been no rain for more than a fortnight.

King Mern had brought half again as many men to the battle as King Loren, and so demanded the honor of commanding the center. His son and heir, Edmund, was given the vanguard. King Loren and his knights would form the right, Lord Oakheart the left. With no natural barriers to anchor the Targaryen line, the Two Kings meant to sweep around Aegon on both flanks, then take him in the rear, whilst their “iron fist,” a great wedge of armored knights and high lords, smashed through Aegon’s center.

Aegon Targaryen drew his own men up in a rough crescent bristling with spears and pikes, with archers and crossbowmen just behind and light cavalry on either flank. He gave command of his host to Jon Mooton, Lord of Maidenpool, one of the first foes to come over to his cause. The king himself intended to do his fighting from the sky, beside his queens. Aegon had noted the absence of rain as well; the grass and wheat that surrounded the armies was tall and ripe for harvest…and very dry.

The Targaryens waited until the Two Kings sounded their trumpets and started forward beneath a sea of banners. King Mern himself led the charge against the center on his golden stallion, his son Gawen beside him with his banner, a great green hand upon a field of white. Roaring and screaming, urged on by horns and drums, the Gardeners and Lannisters charged through a storm of arrows down unto their foes, sweeping aside the Targaryen spearmen, shattering their ranks. But by then Aegon and his sisters were in the air.

Aegon flew above the ranks of his foes upon Balerion, through a storm of spears and stones and arrows, swooping down repeatedly to bathe his foes in flame. Rhaenys and Visenya set fires upwind of the enemy and behind them. The dry grasses and stands of wheat went up at once. The wind fanned the flames and blew the smoke into the faces of the advancing ranks of the Two Kings. The scent of fire sent their mounts into panic, and as the smoke thickened, horse and rider alike were blinded. Their ranks began to break as walls of fire rose on every side of them. Lord Mooton’s men, safely upwind of the conflagration, waited with their bows and spears, and made short work of the burned and burning men who came staggering from the inferno.

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