No doubt he had the right of that, but the issue was never proved, for the Dornishmen never offered battle. Instead they withdrew before King Aegon’s host, burning their crops in the field and poisoning every well. The invaders found the Dornish watchtowers in the Red Mountains slighted and abandoned. In the high passes, Aegon’s vanguard found its way barred by a wall of sheep carcasses, shorn of all wool and too rotted to eat. The king’s army was already running short of food and fodder by the time they emerged from the Prince’s Pass to face the Dornish sands. There Aegon divided his forces, sending Lord Tyrell south against Uthor Uller, Lord of the Hellholt, whilst he himself turned eastward, to besiege Lord Fowler in his mountain fastness Skyreach.
It was the second year of autumn, and winter was thought to be close at hand. In that season, the invaders hoped, the heat in the deserts would be less, water more plentiful. But the Dornish sun proved unrelenting as Lord Tyrell marched toward Hellholt. In such heat, men drink more, and every waterhole and oasis in the army’s path had been poisoned. Horses began to die, more every day, followed by their riders. The proud knights discarded their banners, their shields, their very armor. Lord Tyrell lost a quarter of his men and almost all his horses to the Dornish sands, and when at last he reached the Hellholt, he found it abandoned.
Orys Baratheon’s attack fared little better. His horses struggled on the stony slopes of the narrow, twisting passes, but many balked completely when they reached the steepest sections of the road, where the Dornish had chiseled steps into the mountains. Boulders rained down on the Hand’s knights from above, the work of defenders the stormlanders never saw. Where the Boneway crossed the river Wyl, Dornish archers suddenly appeared as the column was making its way across a bridge, and arrows rained down by the thousands. When Lord Orys ordered his men to fall back, a massive rockfall cut off their retreat. With no way forward and no way back, the stormlanders were butchered like hogs in a pen. Orys Baratheon himself was spared, along with a dozen other lords thought worth the ransom, but they found themselves captives of Wyl of Wyl, the savage mountain lord called Widow-lover.
King Aegon himself had more success. Marching eastward through the foothills, where runoff from the heights provided water and game was plentiful in the valleys, he took the castle Skyreach by storm, won Yronwood after a brief siege. The Lord of the Tor had recently died, and his steward surrendered without a fight. Farther east, Lord Toland of Ghost Hill sent forth his champion to challenge the king to single combat. Aegon accepted and slew the man, only to discover afterward that he had not been Toland’s champion, but his fool. Lord Toland himself was gone.
As was Meria Martell, the Princess of Dorne, when King Aegon descended upon Sunspear on Balerion, to find his sister Rhaenys there before him. After burning the Planky Town, she had taken Lemonwood, Spottswood, and Stinkwater, accepting obeisances from old women and children, but nowhere finding an actual enemy. Even the shadow city outside the walls of Sunspear was half-deserted, and none of those who remained would admit to any knowledge of the whereabouts of the Dornish lords and princess. “The Yellow Toad has melted into the sands,” Queen Rhaenys told King Aegon.
Aegon’s answer was a declaration of victory. In the great hall at Sunspear, he gathered together what dignitaries remained and told them that Dorne was now part of the realm, that henceforth they would be his leal subjects, that their former lords were rebels and outlaws. Rewards were offered for their heads, particularly that of the Yellow Toad, Princess Meria Martell. Lord Jon Rosby was named Castellan of Sunspear and Warden of the Sands, to rule Dorne in the king’s name. Stewards and castellans were named for all the other lands and castles the Conqueror had taken. Then King Aegon and his host departed back the way they had come, west along the foothills and through the Prince’s Pass.
They had hardly reached King’s Landing before Dorne erupted behind them. Dornish spearmen appeared from nowhere, like desert flowers after a rain. Skyreach, Yronwood, the Tor, and Ghost Hill were all recaptured within a fortnight, their royal garrisons put to the sword. Aegon’s castellans and stewards were allowed to die only after long torment. It was said that the Dornish lords had a wager over who could keep their captive alive the longest whilst dismembering them. Lord Rosby, Castellan of Sunspear and Warden of the Sands, had a kinder end than most. After the Dornishmen swarmed in from the shadow city to retake the castle, he was bound hand and foot, dragged to the top of the Spear Tower, and thrown from a window by none other than the aged Princess Meria herself.
Soon only Lord Tyrell and his host remained. King Aegon had left Tyrell behind when he departed. Hellholt, a strong castle on the river Brimstone, was thought to be well situated to deal with any revolts. But the river was sulfurous, and the fish taken from it made the Highgardeners sick. House Qorgyle of Sandstone had never submitted, and Qorgyle spearmen cut down Tyrell’s foraging parties and patrols whenever they strayed too far west. The Vaiths of Vaith did the same to the east. When word of the Defenestration of Sunspear reached the Hellholt, Lord Tyrell gathered his remaining strength and set off across the sands. His announced intention was to capture Vaith, march east along the river, retake Sunspear and the shadow city, and punish Lord Rosby’s murderers. But somewhere east of the Hellholt amidst the red sands, Tyrell and his entire army disappeared. No man of them was ever seen again.
Aegon Targaryen was not a man to accept defeat. The war would drag on for another seven years, though after 6 AC the fighting degenerated into an endless bloody series of atrocities, raids, and retaliations, broken up by long periods of inactivity, a dozen short truces, and numerous murders and assassinations.
In 7 AC, Orys Baratheon and the other lords who had been taken captive on the Boneway were ransomed back to King’s Landing for their weight in gold, but on their return it was found that the Widow-lover had lopped off each man’s sword hand, so they might never again take up swords against Dorne. In retaliation, King Aegon himself descended on the mountain fastnesses of the Wyls with Balerion, and reduced half a dozen of their keeps and watchtowers to heaps of molten stone. The Wyls took refuge in caves and tunnels beneath their mountains, however, and the Widow-lover lived another twenty years.
In 8 AC, a very dry year, Dornish raiders crossed the Sea of Dorne on ships provided by a pirate king from the Stepstones, attacking half a dozen towns and villages along the south shore of Cape Wrath and setting fires that spread through half the rainwood. “Fire for fire,” Princess Meria is reported to have said.
This was not something the Targaryens would allow to go unanswered. Later that same year, Visenya Targaryen appeared in the skies of Dorne, and Vhagar’s fires were loosed upon Sunspear, Lemonwood, Ghost Hill, and the Tor.
In 9 AC, Visenya returned again, this time with Aegon himself flying beside her, and Sandstone, Vaith, and the Hellholt burned.
The Dornish answer came the next year, when Lord Fowler led an army through the Prince’s Pass and into the Reach, moving so swiftly that he was able to burn a dozen villages and capture the great border castle Nightsong before the marcher lords realized the foe was upon them. When word of the attack reached Oldtown, Lord Hightower sent his son Addam with a strong force to retake Nightsong, but the Dornish had anticipated just that thing. A second Dornish army under Ser Joffrey Dayne came down from Starfall and attacked the city. Oldtown’s walls proved too strong for the Dornish to overcome, but Dayne burned fields, farms, and villages for twenty leagues around the city, and slew Lord Hightower’s younger son, Garmon, when the boy led a sortie against him. Ser Addam Hightower reached Nightsong only to find that Lord Fowler had put the castle to the torch and its garrison to the sword. Lord Caron and his wife and children had been carried back to Dorne as captives. Rather than pursue, Ser Addam returned at once to Oldtown to relieve the city, but Ser Joffrey and his army had melted back into the mountains as well.