Fire & Blood (A Targaryen History #1)

Old Lord Manfred Hightower died soon after. Ser Addam succeeded his father as the Lord of the High Tower, as Oldtown cried out for vengeance. King Aegon flew Balerion to Highgarden to take counsel with his Warden of the South, but Theo Tyrell, the young lord, was most reluctant to contemplate another invasion of Dorne after the fate that had befallen his father.

Once again the king unleashed his dragons against Dorne. Aegon himself fell upon Skyreach, vowing to make the Fowler seat “a second Harrenhal.” Visenya and Vhagar brought fire and blood to Starfall. And Rhaenys and Meraxes returned once more to the Hellholt…where tragedy struck. The Targaryen dragons, bred and trained to battle, had flown through storms of spears and arrows on many occasions, and suffered little harm. The scales of a full-grown dragon were harder than steel, and even those arrows that struck home seldom penetrated enough to do more than enrage the great beasts. But as Meraxes banked above the Hellholt, a defender atop the castle’s highest tower triggered a scorpion, and a yard-long iron bolt caught the queen’s dragon in the right eye. Meraxes did not die at once, but came crashing to earth in mortal agony, destroying the tower and a large section of the Hellholt’s curtain wall in her death throes.

Whether Rhaenys Targaryen outlived her dragon remains a matter of dispute. Some say that she lost her seat and fell to her death, others that she was crushed beneath Meraxes in the castle yard. A few accounts claim the queen survived her dragon’s fall, only to die a slow death by torment in the dungeons of the Ullers. The true circumstances of her demise will likely never be known, but Rhaenys Targaryen, sister and wife to King Aegon I, perished at the Hellholt in Dorne in the 10th year After the Conquest.

The next two years were the years of the Dragon’s Wroth. Every castle in Dorne was burned thrice over, as Balerion and Vhagar returned time and time again. The sands around the Hellholt were fused into glass in places, so hot was Balerion’s fiery breath. The Dornish lords were forced into hiding, but even that did not buy them safety. Lord Fowler, Lord Vaith, Lady Toland, and four successive Lords of the Hellholt were murdered, one after the other, for the Iron Throne had offered a lord’s ransom in gold for the head of any Dornish lord. Only two of the killers lived to collect their rewards, however, and the Dornishmen took their reprisals, repaying blood with blood. Lord Connington of Griffin’s Roost was killed whilst hunting, Lord Mertyns of Mistwood poisoned with his whole household by a cask of Dornish wine, Lord Fell smothered in a brothel in King’s Landing.

Nor were the Targaryens themselves exempt. The king was attacked thrice, and would have fallen on two of those occasions but for his guards. Queen Visenya was set upon one night in King’s Landing. Two of her escorts were slain before Visenya herself cut down the last attacker with Dark Sister.

The most infamous act of that bloody age occurred in 12 AC, when Wyl of Wyl, the Widow-lover, arrived uninvited at the wedding of Ser Jon Cafferen, heir to Fawnton, to Alys Oakheart, daughter to the Lord of Old Oak. Admitted through a postern gate by a treacherous servant, the Wyl attackers slew Lord Oakheart and most of the wedding guests, then made the bride look on as they gelded her husband. Afterward they took turns raping Lady Alys and her handmaids, then carried them off and sold them to a Myrish slaver.

By then Dorne was a smoking desert, beset by famine, plague, and blight. “A blasted land,” traders from the Free Cities called it. Yet House Martell still remained Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken, as their words avowed. One Dornish knight, brought before Queen Visenya as a captive, insisted that Meria Martell would sooner see her people dead than slaves to House Targaryen. Visenya replied that she and her brother would be glad to oblige the princess.

Age and ill health finally did what dragons and armies could not. In 13 AC, Meria Martell, the Yellow Toad of Dorne, died abed (whilst having intimate relations with a stallion, her enemies insisted). Her son Nymor succeeded her as Lord of Sunspear and Prince of Dorne. Sixty years old, his health already failing, the new Dornish prince had no appetite for further slaughter. He began his reign by sending a delegation to King’s Landing, to return the skull of the dragon Meraxes and offer King Aegon terms of peace. His own heir, his daughter Deria, led the embassy.

Prince Nymor’s peace proposals encountered strong opposition in King’s Landing. Queen Visenya was hard set against them. “No peace without submission,” she declared, and her friends on the king’s council echoed her words. Orys Baratheon, who had grown bent and bitter in his later years, argued for sending Princess Deria back to her father less a hand. Lord Oakheart sent a raven, suggesting that the Dornish girl be sold into “the meanest brothel in King’s Landing, till every beggar in the city has had his pleasure of her.” Aegon Targaryen dismissed all such proposals; Princess Deria had come as an envoy under a banner of peace and would suffer no harm under his roof, he vowed.

The king was weary of war, all men agreed, but granting the Dornishmen peace without submission would be tantamount to saying that his beloved sister Rhaenys had died in vain, that all the blood and death had been for naught. The lords of his small council further cautioned that any such peace could be seen as a sign of weakness and might encourage fresh rebellions, which would then need to be put down. Aegon knew that the Reach, the stormlands, and the marches had suffered grievously during the fighting, and would neither forgive nor forget. Even in King’s Landing, the king dared not let the Dornish outside the Aegonfort without a strong escort, for fear that the smallfolk of the city would tear them to pieces. For all these reasons, Grand Maester Lucan wrote later, the king was on the point of refusing the Dornish proposals and continuing the war.

It was then that Princess Deria presented the king with a sealed letter from her father. “For your eyes only, Your Grace.”

King Aegon read Prince Nymor’s words in open court, stone-faced and silent, whilst seated on the Iron Throne. When he rose afterward, men said, his hand was dripping blood. He burned the letter and never spoke of it again, but that night he mounted Balerion and flew off across the waters of Blackwater Bay, to Dragonstone upon its smoking mountain. When he returned the next morning, Aegon Targaryen agreed to the terms proposed by Nymor. Soon thereafter he signed a treaty of eternal peace with Dorne.

To this day, no one can say with certainty what might have been in Deria’s letter. Some claim it was a simple plea from one father to another, heartfelt words that touched King Aegon’s heart. Others insist it was a list of all those lords and noble knights who had lost their lives during the war. Certain septons even went so far as to suggest that the missive was ensorceled, that it had been written by the Yellow Toad before her death, using a vial of Queen Rhaenys’s own blood for ink, so that the king would be helpless to resist its malign magic.

Grand Maester Clegg, who came to King’s Landing many years later, concluded that Dorne no longer had the strength to fight. Driven by desperation, Clegg suggested, Prince Nymor might have threatened that, should his peace be refused, he would engage the Faceless Men of Braavos to kill King Aegon’s son and heir, Queen Rhaenys’s boy, Aenys, then but six years old. It may be so…but no man will ever truly know.

Thus ended the First Dornish War (4–13 AC).

The Yellow Toad of Dorne had done what Harren the Black, the Two Kings, and Torrhen Stark could not; she had defeated Aegon Targaryen and his dragons. Yet north of the Red Mountains, her tactics earned her only scorn. “Dornish courage” became a mocking name for cowardice amongst the lords and knights of Aegon’s kingdoms. “The toad hops into her hole when threatened,” wrote one scribe. Another said, “Meria fought like a woman, with lies and treachery and witchery.” The Dornish “victory” (if victory it was) was seen to be dishonorable, and the survivors of the fight, and the sons and brothers of those who had fallen, promised one another that another day would come, and with it a reckoning.

Their vengeance would need to wait for a future generation, and the accession of a younger, more bloodthirsty king. Though he would sit the Iron Throne for another twenty-four years, the Dornish conflict was Aegon the Conqueror’s last war.

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