Aegon II, by Amok
“No war was bloodier or crueler than the Dance of Dragons.” –The World of Ice and Fire, Aegon II
The Dance of the Dragons, the two-year civil war from 129 to 131 AC, was a war that devastated the countryside. The Targaryen words, Fire and Blood, tore through the countryside in a way that hadn’t been seen before, even during Aegon’s War of Conquest or the Faith Militant revolt. Brother fought sister in a war rife with battle, intrigue, and brutal murder, and when the fires burned out and the blood dried, a handful of Targaryens would be all that was left. This war, in many ways, was the beginning of the precipitous slide of the Targaryen dynasty, and it’s the topic of our next few essays.
Welcome to the next installment of the Three Heads of the Dragon essay series, a joint series written by NFriel, Militant_Penguin, and myself discussing the kings, pretenders, and ladies of the storied Targaryen dynasty. This is the second essay detailing the Dance of the Dragons. The first discussed the two great ladies that arguably were the centerpiece of the Dance, so much so that their respective factions took their colors. This essay discusses King Aegon II during his short reign, and also analyzes the green’s campaign in the Dance of the Dragons, discussing their successes and failures. The next will be discussing the blacks faction, and the fourth and final piece will discuss other powerful women who held the fate of the Dance in their hands.
Aegon II – The King Who Was
The King of the greens is frustratingly difficult to analyze. Less than a year after he would seize the throne, Aegon would take to the field against the Queen-Who-Never-Was, and though he would be ultimately victorious in the Battle of Rook’s Rest, he would suffer such grievous wounds that he would be rendered incapacitated. He would spend much of his reign under the influence of milk of the poppy, and the prosecution of his war would fall under his brothers and allies rather than himself. Then, he would be in hiding after the fall of King’s Landing. When he finally revealed himself, he would shatter his legs in a fall after a duel with Baela Targaryen. He would die soon after by poison. For the two years of his reign, he spent less than one of them active, complicating close analysis greatly.
“A strong resemblence to his father, Viserys, but in him the playful look has been replaced by a certain petulance. A sullen look to the eyes, a pouty mouth. Holds a dagger in his hand, testing the point against his finger. Clad in armor, but he does not look like a warrior. No beard, and only a faint wispy hint of a mustache. Wears the steel-and-ruby crown of Aegon the Conquerer.” -GRRM, So Spake Martin
However, what we do know does not paint a very flattering picture. Aegon was known to be a lazy, covetous, and gluttonous, as well as a very sulky youth. He was known to have an appetite for women, and fathered several bastards by the tender age of 22 even while married to his sister, Helaena Targaryen. He was quarrelsome as well, especially with his cousins, Rhaenyra’s sons. In 127 AC, Jace Velaryon asked Helaena for a dance, a move which offended Aegon. The two argued, and the Kingsguard intervened lest a fight break out between the two. It should be noted, however, that Aegon had reason to dislike Rhaenyra’s children. Seven years prior, Lucerys Velaryon took an eye from Aemond, the older of Aegon’s two brothers, during a quarrel. Aegon was known to have warm relationships with both of his brothers and at least a cordial one with his sister-wife, so his grudge against Rhaenyra’s children might stem from the attack on his brother rather than offense taken on behalf of his wife.
Still, Aegon’s laziness likely stems from Viserys. As Aegon was never named as the king’s heir, he was never instructed in the art of ruling. He never sat on his father’s councils the way Rhaenyra had, nor was he given any holdings to govern. He was never assigned a position at court the way many supernumerary brothers were done. Aegon was not noted to have been fostered anywhere, and so the primary male role model for Aegon would have been Viserys himself, a man gone to fat and disinterested in rule. Even Aegon’s quarrelsome nature could be blamed on Viserys; Viserys had openly proclaimed that men questioning the legitimacy of Rhaenyra’s children would lose their tongues, despite the young princes’ strong resemblance to Harwin “Breakbones” Strong, Rhaenyra’s rumored lover. Additionally, after Viseys’s firstborn son died one day after his birth, the Rogue Prince was overheard to make a drunken jape at the expense of the recently-deceased prince, to which Viserys responded by overturning the decision of the Great Council that had named him to the Throne three years prior. These sorts of overreaction would leave a profound impression on the future Aegon II. After all, Viserys was the king, and ostensibly was acting the way that a king should.
Oddly, when told that he was to ascend the Throne, Aegon was said to have been indifferent, even acknowledging that his father named Rhaenyra as the heir. Alicent Hightower, persuaded him that as long as he lived, neither he, nor his brothers, nor his children would be safe, as according to the very legal precedent that placed Viserys I on the Iron Throne, sons always came before daughters. Given Aegon’s later prosecution of the war, it is unknown whether this early remark is an invention by Septon Eustace, a noted Aegon II supporter who desired to ascribe more positive traits to his chosen candidate, or whether Aegon’s notable acedia led even to the position of King of Westeros. No matter how Aegon truly reacted, he was noted to be aggressive in pursuit of his war. At the first engagement once hostilities were declared, he was present upon Sunfyre with his brother, Aemond, and more than willing to fight, a trait which would not be true of his rival, Rhaenyra.
13th Century Depiction of King Stephen of Blois, by Matthew Paris
If the main book series takes inspiration from the War of the Roses, then the Dance of the Dragons is chiefly inspired by the Anarchy, a succession crisis instigated after the death of Henry I of England in 1135 AD. In this, Aegon is Stephen of Blois. Henry I, Stephen of Blois’s predecessor, attempted to install his daughter, Empress Maude (or Matilda, as she is also referred to, but Stephen’s wife was also named Matilda, so it is convenient to refer to her as Maude to quickly differentiate between the two) of the Holy Roman Empire, as the heir-presumptive following the death of Henry’s son William at sea. Like Rhaenyra, Maude was trained in how to rule, observing at court, and the various lords of England were called upon to kneel and swear their oaths to her as the heir-apparent. Many found this state of affairs unpalatable, and upon Henry’s death, Stephen found himself well situated to take the English throne for himself, fighting a war against Empress Maude and Robert of Gloucester, Maude’s half-brother. Like Stephen, Aegon is largely regarded as sitting king by contemporary historians. The Anarchy and the Dance are characterized largely by their high casualty rates, with the former being characterized by slow-paced, grinding attritional warfare geared toward stealing or burning supplies and starving the opponent through siegecraft, and the latter upping the pace considerably with dragons.
Like Aegon, Stephen of Blois’s legacy is often difficult to decrypt. Almost every contemporary source was written with no small amount of bias, either to curry favor with Stephen or his successor Henry II (as we see in the notably pro-Aegon Septon Eustace’s writings, as GRRM professes a love of unreliable narrators full of subjectivity). Sources vary in their portrayal, ranging from a superficial king competent on the battlefield to a genial but unlucky commander whose personal issues and external pressures caused him to lose Normandy. Many credit his cause’s successes not to the king, but to powerful allies, including his brother and wife. This would mirror Martin’s portrayal of Aegon, who, like Stephen, was happy to take the field in his cause, but overshadowed militarily by his brother Aemond and politically by his mother, the Dowager Queen Alicent Hightower.
Opening Moves – The Beginning of the Dance
The Greens campaign began on the very evening of Viserys I’s death. Alicent Hightower’s political moves to rally the Greens and isolate the Blacks have already been discussed, but the moves by the green council are just as important. When the green council convened to discuss the matter of the King’s death, only Lyman Beesbury spoke in Rhaenyra’s defense. As the only lord old enough to be personally present when Viserys had gathered the lords of the realm, Lyman Beesbury would certainly have remembered his oaths, as well as the time he spent dutifully serving as an administrator during Jaehaerys I’s golden age. He was neither a snubbed suitor of Rhaenyra like Tyland Lannister, nor a personal enemy of the Realm’s Delight like Criston Cole, nor a relation of Aegon like Otto Hightower. Accounts differ as to how Lyman died, but all agree that he was set upon by the greens and thus, the blacks faction could not be spurred into motion by the financier from Honeyholt.
With the master of coin position vacant, Tyland Lannister filled it immediately. In a move that would be later evaluated as far-sighted, Lord Tyland looked to securing the treasury. King’s Landing would be the goal for any black movement, so Tyland looked to ensure that they could gain no monies from an attack on the capital. Half of the treasury would be sent to green strongholds in Westeros, Casterly Rock and Hightower. A quarter would be deposited with the Iron Bank of Braavos, for safekeeping. The final quarter was put to use immediately, courting favor among lordships, hiring mercenaries, purchasing equipment, and all of the necessary expenditures of war.
Otto Hightower and Orwyle urged diplomacy to head off a protracted civil war, and here we see loyalist diplomacy and rebel diplomacy used respectively. Otto, eager to protect his grandson’s position, looked to undermine the blacks by bringing in powerful enemies of Rhaenyra’s polarizing husband, Prince Daemon Targaryen. In this, the most powerful was the Kingdom of the Three Daughters, wealthy Essosi city-fathers of Lys, Myr, and Tyrosh who had long fought with Daemon and Rhaenyra’s most powerful supporter, Lord Corlys Velaryon. Eager for a chance to strike offensively at their longtime foe and hated mercantile rival, the Kingdom of the Three Daughters readied a warfleet.
Orwyle, however, was a secret supporter of Daemon Targaryen and thus, he attempted to hamstring the greens from the beginning. After all, Lyman Beesbury had been killed for his support of Rhaenyra, so Orwyle acted in secret. Orwyle looked to undermine the greens’ head-start in the war by urging delay for diplomatic action. His urging to stall out the initial green momentum, to carry forth insulting peace terms, all are reminiscent of Lord Butterwell, who was noted to be so ineffective in the prosecution of the First Blackfyre Rebellion that many openly questioned his loyalty. The first blood shed in the battle would not be an out-and-out battle, but rather a skirmish between two emissaries. Both Aemond Targaryen and Lucerys Velaryon hoped to court Lord Borros Baratheon of Storm’s End, and coincidentally both reached his hold on the same day. Rhaenyra counted Lord Borros’s father, Boremund, as a staunch supporter of her mother-in-law Rhaenys, and had hoped to win the Stormlands to her cause. With the Eyrie already declaring for her, having Storm’s End would threaten King’s Landing from the north and south, and could put pressure on the already-divided Reach. For the greens, having Storm’s End would provide a great deal of men and troops already close to King’s Landing.
Aemond and Vhagar killing Lucerys and Arrax over Shipbreker Bay, by Chase Stone
Lucerys reached Storm’s End to find Aemond already treating with Borros, and the two factions began to vie for Lord Borros’s support. Aemond won out by being able to promise a royal marriage, as he was unwed and Borros Baratheon had four eligible daughters. Lucerys, already betrothed to his cousin Rhaena, could not offer the same price for Baratheon support, and was dismissed from Storm’s End. Aemond wished to duel, but Lucerys refused as he had sworn a holy oath that he traveled to Storm’s End an emissary, not a knight or champion. Aemond refused to accept, but Lord Borros stopped him, claiming that he was lord and that no blood was to be shed under his roof. When Lucerys departed to inform his mother of his mission’s failure, Aemond begged leave to depart after Lucerys, which Borros granted, knowing tacitly that it would lead to Lucerys’s death (as Vhagar could easily overpower Lucerys’s swifter but smaller dragon Arrax).
The death of an emissary was called murder by Rhaenyra, and Borros was implied by Maester Yandel to be complicit in Lucerys’s death. Certainly, ambassadors and messengers are known to enjoy special immunity since antiquity. Several times throughout history, poor treatment of diplomats is tantamount to a declaration of war. When ambassadors from the Persian king Xerxes demanded the submission of the Grecian city-states, the Athenians responded by throwing the emissary into a well, kicking off the Greco-Persian wars in earnest. If the two factions were not going to come to blows then, they most certainly were now after the death of Luke, his mother’s ambassador.
Yet Lucerys was a dragonrider in his own right; Aemond could have reasonably conceived that Lucerys did not wish to fight because he would have been outmatched, either on foot (Aemond was noted to be an incredibly skilled swordsman) or on dragonback. Fighting Luke would have given Aemond and the greens an easy victory and deprived the blacks of a terrific asset . The question of whether to kill enemy commanders when they are not in an active capacity when the opportunity arises is a question that armies and philosophers have wrestled with to this day, and the advent of technology only raises new and further questions which have no clear answer. The simple allegation of Borros’s culpability is not as clear-cut as the source materials make it out to be.
Green Tide Rising – Early Successes by the Greens
Luke’s death, and the subsequent assassination of Prince Jaehaerys by the black-hired Blood and Cheese, marked the launch of the war in earnest. After Prince Daemon took Harrenhal largely unopposed and burnt Stone Hedge, Otto Hightower was dismissed as Hand of the King; Aegon believed the time for Otto’s letter-writing diplomacy had passed. The Hightowers mustered their levies from Oldtown under Ormund Hightower, with Prince Daeron offering aerial support aboard Tessarion, his splendid but young blue dragon. The new Hand, Lord Commander Criston Cole, quickly went to work with the royal levies, attacking Rhaenyra’s supporters in their castles. With the Velaryon navy declaring for Rhaenyra and Dalton Greyjoy aloof (for the moment), Cole limited himself to attacking strongholds on the Westerosi continent, hoping to lure out Rhaenrya and end the battle in a decisive fashion very early in the campaign. He sacked Duskendale in a savage fashion and executed Lord Darklyn for supporting the blacks faction. When Cole attacked Rook’s Rest, he achieved his goal of luring out a dragonrider, but not the one he thought. Rook’s Rest had called for aid, but Rhaenys Velaryon, wife of Corlys Velaryon and popularly called the Queen-Who-Never-Was, had responded in Rhaenyra’s stead. Criston Cole first attempted to bring down Meleys with missile and siege weaponry, to little effect, but then he deployed Vhagar and Sunfyre, ridden by the King and his brother. Meleys was one of the largest dragons of the Dance, and Rhaenys among the most experienced dragonrider living (only Daemon Targaryen would have more experience, and Meleys was larger and stronger than Daemon’s lean Caraxes). The end result of the battle was a pyrrhic victory for the greens. Rhaenys Targaryen and Meleys both lay dead, but King Aegon and his dragon Sunfyre were severely injured, unable to continue fighting.
Sailing Cog, from The Lost Treasure Chest
Oddly enough, while Otto Hightower was dismissed for the ‘failure’ of his diplomatic strategy, that selfsame ‘failing’ strategy produced the most successful green victory. Prince Daemon, in the past, had been a longtime enemy of the Kingdom of the Triarchy (an alliance of Lys, Myr, and Tyrosh, the southwestern three Free Cities) with his war in the Stepstones. Otto, as Hand, had reached out to the Kingdom, offering them a chance to strike at Daemon Targaryen, who had often attacked their holdings. The Kingdom assembled a 90-vessel warfleet and attacked the Velaryon navy in one of the most destructive naval battles in Westerosi history. The fleet intercepted the Gay Abandon, a Pentoshi cog carrying Aegon the Younger and Viserys, the two sons of Daemon and Rhaenyra. Prince Viserys attempted to hide as a cabin boy, but was fingered out by the other staff and taken captive by the Lysene Rogare family. Aegon the Younger fled upon his dragon Stormcloud, barely old enough to support the nine-year old prince and mortally wounded by missile fire in the flight. Despite those injuries, the dragon was able to convey Aegon to Dragonstone before expiring. The young prince was able to warn his mother and the black army of the oncoming warfleet.
Prince Jacaerys attempted to lead a solo assault on the Triarchy fleet, but the Triarchy fleet was undaunted. However, the blacks deployed a total of five dragons in the assault, with the four baseborn dragonriders – Addam of Hull, Hugh Hammer, Ulf the White, and Nettles – taking wing against the fleet as well. The triarchy fleet would be largely burnt, losing approximately two-thirds of their number. Yet oddly enough, the Battle of the Gullet is taken to be a victory for the Triarchy. Certainly, the Free Cities did kill both Vermax and Prince Jacaerys, but how did they hold on despite an overwhelming loss? The answer, as I see it, is that they were able to survive until nightfall. Jace Velaryon’s fate shows us what happens when dragons hit the ocean, for both dragon and rider alike. The four dragonseeds have less experience as riders, and seeing Jace plummet into the ocean in the setting sun made them reconsider their attack. Had they continued, it was likely that Vermithor or Silverwing, one of the two larger dragons available to Rhaenyra, would have met the same fate as Vermax, and that would have further reduced Rhaenyra’s advantage over the greens.
Once the battle was decided, the Triarchy sailed on to Driftmark, where they sacked High Tide, Corlys’s marvelous new home built after he had amassed many treasures in his great voyages. Spicetown was burned down and never rebuilt. The fantastic wealth that Corlys enjoyed, enough so that he was richer than even the mighty Lannisters, was stolen or destroyed. The poor serving folk that had remained behind to manage the Sea Snake’s castle were butchered as they attempted to flee. The Velaryon navy lost a third of its strength. Overall, the Battle of the Gullet was an unabashed disaster for the blacks. They lost two princelings and two dragons, and all to attack an allied fleet with no ties to Westeros save the personal hatred they had for Prince Daemon.
While the blacks were losing ships and dragons in the east, the Hightower army was marching from Oldtown, slogging through the Reach which had evenly divided itself between green and black. House Tyrell was ruled by an infant, and his regent mother proved cautious enough to stay out of the war entirely. As such, the Hightower army did not have the easy march that they were expecting. At the Honeywine, an out-of-position Ormund Hightower was flanked by the armies of Lord Rowan to the northeast, with forces from House Tarly, Costayne, and Beesbury cutting off the army from Oldtown. Houses Costayne and Beesbury, it should be noted, were vassals of House Hightower, and this suggests that the Hightowers were surprised by their rebellious vassals. Flanked and outmaneuvered, the Hightower army was saved when Prince Daeron, Aegon II’s youngest brother, surprised the Reachmen forces and unleashed a gout of fire which broke apart their formations and gave the Hightowers a chance to rally and regroup. After poaching a page from Aegon’s close air support playbook, Prince Daeron would be knighted, having earned his spurs for his valor.
Battle of Dara, by the US Military Academy Atlas for Ancient Warfare
Flanking attacks were great ways to disrupt an enemy formation since antiquity. An infamous example occurred during the battle of Dara, in 530 AD. Under Flavius Belisarius, the Eastern Roman Empire and their army of 25,000 men faced off against Perozes and the mighty Sassanid Empire of Persia. During the battle, the overeager Persian cavalry pushed too far forward against the Roman cavalry, almost pushing them back to the walls of Dara. Belisarius, seeing this, sent his infantry to charge and strike the Persians on their exposed flank, completely arresting their attack and saving the Roman cavalry. Seeing themselves saved, the Roman cavalry realized that rescue was at hand, and immediately wheeled back on the Persians, routing them from the field and eliminating their numerical advantage over the Romans. Units, when in straight combat, can absorb punishing losses, but attacks from unexpected directions cause a lack of unit cohesion and morale, often inviting a panic. When an enemy is fixed by a natural feature or direct combat, a flanking enemy can disrupt their mobility. When attacked in two directions, only one avenue remains for safe withdrawal.
Green Faction, Green Command – Mistakes Made by the Greens
Despite these initial victories, the general incompetence of the senior leadership of the green faction would ultimately cause the greens’ campaign to stall out. All of Aegon II’s commanders bear some responsibility for this, and the greens were already outmatched given that the two most experienced military commanders in Westeros, Daemon Targaryen and Corlys Velaryon, were both ardent black supporters. However, through strategic and tactical incompetence, disunity of command, and inability to project authority, the greens were unable to capitalize upon the early advantages they seized in the war.
Assessing (correctly) that Daemon Targaryen was the true threat, and possessing only one dragon since Tessarion was far in the field, Aemond and Criston Cole made the fateful decision to attack Daemon’s holdings at Harrenhal. These would leave the capital woefully undefended against the five other dragons that Rhaenyra still had to command. The city would be defended largely by the City Watch, which Tyrion notes that perhaps one-in-four could be counted on as a true defender against an invading army. More tellingly, Daemon Targaryen still had many friends in King’s Landing who could be counted on when he needed a favor. This sort of spycraft supremacy characterized the blacks faction throughout the war: The blacks were able to steal Viserys’s crown, Daemon was able to strike at Helaena Targaryen and her children, and his allies could be counted upon to provide information to him on the greens’ strategic plans. In this case, the plans were probably leaked through Grand Maester Orwyle, Daemon’s suspected mole on the green council.
Daemon sacrificed Harrenhal to move against a far greater prize: King’s Landing. If the blacks could hold the capital, where the king was recuperating from his injuries at Rook’s Rest, they would have won it all. Daemon flew east upon Caraxes, united with the blacks, and there Rhaenyra went to King’s Landing with all guns blazing. Corlys Velaryon locked down Blackwater Bay to the east after dropping off the bulk of Rhaenyra’s levies to assault the capital by land. Over the skies, Rhaenyra flew the concentrated force of her dragons, hearkening back to the years under Jaehaerys where dragons flew the skies over the capital to profess Targaryen supremacy over the city that Aegon had built. Seeing this, the City Watch turned to Rhaenyra’s side and slew their commander, Gwayne Hightower, professing loyalty to their previous commander, Daemon Targaryen, the one who had given them their equipment and training. The City Watch opened the gates for Rhaenyra’s army, and the gold cloaks stopped any word from leaving the city, as Vhagar and Aemond could match any one of Rhaenyra’s dragons in a one-on-one fight following the loss of Rhaenys and Meleys.
The loss of King’s Landing speaks to the green inability to see their tactical shortcomings when related to the blacks. The greens had more troops, but the blacks had more dragons, and as shown in the Battle of the Gullet, a concentrated force of dragons can seize victory where defeat is all but certain. Aegon Targaryen proved that in the Conquest, 130 years ago. With King Aegon II wounded in the field, and Queen Helaena barely responsive after the murder of her son, Jaehaerys, only Vhagar and Tessarion remained for the greens to deploy, and Tessarion was young and more importantly, far away. Even if Criston Cole remained to protect Kings Landing, they would have been hardpressed had Rhaenyra committed the dragons to an assault. A strong garrison may have been able to hold the keep until Vhagar returned. The Red Keep is too powerful a symbol of Targaryen rulership to melt to the ground, and the damage it would cause would almost certainly render King’s Landing a shadow of its former self.
When the Lannister forces marched east, they fought a minor skirmish at the Red Fork. While the Riverlanders weren’t able to stop the combined march of the Westerlander army, the squire Pate of Longleaf was able to slay the senior commander, Lord Jason Lannister, and send the Westerlander forces into disarray. The most senior commander afterward was old Leo Lefford, and his age and the reorganization after the Red Fork meant serious delays. This proved to be a very costly mistake for the greens, as the slow pace meant that they were able to be set upon by the blacks who had united the armies of the Riverlanders, under Forrest Frey, and the Northmen, under Roddy the Ruin. These two armies were able to flank the westerlanders, who then were encircled by the survivors from the Battle of the Red Fork and destroy them. Though the blacks won the day, both sides took incredibly high casualties as was typical of the Dance, their corpses littering the God’s Eye lake. For this reason, the battle was named the Fishfeed).
Battle of Marathon, by the US Military Academy Dept. of History
Encirclement tactics were the pinnacle tactic of the pre-modern army. For all the talk of training, equipment, and tactics, infantry fights were often a simple but brutal slog, decided by luck and chaos, as each side would often achieve local supremacy and cut holes in enemy lines. By attacking an opposing army from all sides, infantry would become pinned down, unable to shore up failing formations, and once the formation broke, one enemy would be able to commit two or three soldiers for every one of their foe, exposing soldiers to attacks from multiple angles to overwhelm their defenses and cut off avenues of retreat. The Fishfeed would be the black’s Marathon, using a double flanking maneuver and the God’s Eye to completely surround the greens and rout them from the field. However, the blacks would suffer grievously in this victory; the Fishfeed would be as pyrrhic a victory as any won by the greens. The Winter Wolves, mounted troops, would directly charge lines of pikemen in a direct repudiation of sound cavalry-against-infantry tactics, looking to overrun and break the formation with valor alone. While storybook, cavalry that charges directly against infantry, instead of using a combined flanking/charging/pinning doctrine reminiscent of the more brilliant commanders of antiquity, suffer high casualties and cannot sustain a prolonged campaign. The sort of reckless tactics employed by the Northmen at the Fishfeed would serve to bleed the black infantry, resulting in Rhaenyra’s forces unable to seize momentum.
With this loss of the westermen forces, Criston Cole and Aemond Targaryen decided to abandon the push for Harrenhal. Aemond, looking to repeat the success of Rook’s Rest, sought to lure out the dragonriders by burning out Riverlords who supported Rhaenyra, in the hopes that the Realm’s Delight would dispatch her husband Daemon to stop him. Criston Cole, however, decided to march his troops south to join with Ormund Hightower’s force, so they could unite into one single force. Perhaps Cole believed that Daeron, with the smaller, more nimble Tessarion, could force dragonriders into Vhagar’s hungry jaws. If the two could eliminate Daemon Targaryen or Rhaenyra, the other dragonriders could probably defect en masse for want of a pardon and honors. After all, dragonriders were a powerful force, and could reasonably expect lands, titles, riches, or whatever they desired.
However, the two could not come to an agreement and most disastrously, they elected to split off from each others, with Aemond going north and Cole going south. This mistake would lead to the Butcher’s Ball, one of the most disastrous losses for the greens in the Dance. Attacking through stealth and deception, the blacks masqueraded as corpses to slowly pick off Cole’s troops, harrying his march until at last the Winter Wolves and the Riverlanders, regrouped after the Fishfeed, would do battle. Cole immediately demanded single combat with all three of the blacks commanders, but was refused and was cut down by archers.
Single combat to decide war has a rich tradition in Westeros, though it seems that the side with the greater advantage often is the one to refuse duels. In the main storyline, for example, Cortnay Penrose offered to duel Stannis Baratheon for Storm’s End, and the Blackfish offered to duel the (maimed) Jaime Lannister during Riverrun. In a hopeless situation, the desperate party often seeks to redefine the terms and scope of the battle, often challenging the masculinity of the other party, a common baiting tactic among patriarchal and martial societies. Given how often this tactic is refused, however, there does not appear to be a societal compulsion to accept the duel. Indeed, savvy commanders like Stannis Baratheon look upon such grandstanding as foolish and unnecessarily risky. For the blacks, winning was more important than how, and none of the black commanders saw the need in losing their heads to Criston Cole’s blade when they could just kill him.
Aemond’s refusal to provide Vhagar to help screen Criston Cole’s movement south was the chief cause of the Butcher’s Ball. Dragon’s are not only used to burn and destroy; a dragon’s quick overland speed and high cruising altitude means that any dragonrider can scout out an army in safety, as Rhaenys did in the Conqueror’s Stormlander campaign. This is doubly true for a force as large as the 7,200-strong force that Criston Cole would fight at the Butcher’s Ball. This enemy army of Northmen and Riverlanders was the largest one without dragons, as Rhaenyra would refuse to provide draconic coverage for her armies. By attempting to force Rhaenyra’s hand, Aemond instead abandoned his army for personal glory, delivering an army into the blacks hands for lack of support. Like that, the greens lost their senior commander and a sizeable army for want of Aemond Targaryen.
Victory From Defeat – The Greens Rebound
This would be the nadir for the greens, but as Ormund Hightower’s army advanced on Tumbleton, Rhaenyra would dispatch Ulf and Hugh, two of her four dragonseeds, to take out Daeron Targaryen and offer support for her army. Though the blacks would outnumber the greens, Ormund Hightower had done a significant amount of preparatory work to undermine Rhaenyra’s numerical advantage. Masking his own men as pro-Rhaenyra refugees fleeing with others in the wake of the Hightower army, he looked to use them to act as a force multiplier to undermine the blacks garrisoned in Tumbleton. As it happened, he didn’t need to do such a thing. Ulf and Hugh turned cloak and unleashed their dragons upon the defenders. Both dragonseeds felt slighted by Rhaenyra, rewarded with minor seats and lordships when they were an integral part of her army. While their true reasons are unknown, it is likely they defected in hopes of better rewards, and both sacked Tumbleton savagely.
The Hightower army lost their senior commander, Ormund Hightower, in a suicide charge by Roderick Dustin, causing a great deal of distress for the army. Other candidates were too young, including Daeron Targaryen, and Hugh and Ulf desired command as partial reward for their treason. Hobert Hightower took command, but his middling intellect caused him to have little authority, and he was unable to stop the sack of Tumbleton. More disastrously from a military mindset, the lack of unity of command caused the army to stall out in Tumbleton, losing men to desertions and not continue on to their objective of King’s Landing. Had Criston Cole or Aemond Targaryen been present, they could have easily assumed command and perhaps brought an early end to the war. With the Two Betrayers defecting, the greens now had a rough parity of dragons with the blacks faction, with the added advantage of having the three largest and most powerful dragons on their side. Without a unifying figure, however, they could not turn this reversal into tangible gains for their faction.
Dragonstone, by Philip Straub
While Ormund had been sneaking men into Tumbleton, Larys Strong, the master of whisperers who had gone missing since the fall of King’s Landing, snuck a far greater prize into a far greater stronghold. Aegon II, needing a place to recover and a base to plan his next move, was advised by Larys Strong to take over Dragonstone. The island stronghold was sparsely defended after Rhaenyra had moved her court to King’s Landing. Much like the takeover of Kings Landing by Rhaenyra’s own forces, Aegon found many willing to oppose Rhaenyra, either for family members lost during the war or for her tyrannical policies. Aegon rested for a time, until Sunfyre, recovering from his injuries and bonded with his master, flew to Dragonstone and reunited with his rider. Using a small force supplemented by turncloaks and his own dragon, Aegon quickly took Dragonstone. Even this victory would be muddled, as Baela Targaryen would get free, take wing upon her dragon Moondancer, and attack Aegon during the attack. Had Aegon and Sunfyre been uninjured, it is likely Baela would have been torn to pieces, but both dragon and rider had been crippled by prior battles, and both took injuries that would permanently ground the other, Aegon by shattering his legs, and Sunfyre becoming entangled with Moondancer and plummeting into the ground. Still, Aegon had taken Dragonstone, eliminated another dragonrider, and kept his head and his faction above water.
At the same time that the greens were experiencing success, no matter how questionable, at Tumbleton and Dragonstone, Aemond Targaryen was north in the Riverlands, burning Rhaenyra’s strongholds and hoping to lure out Daemon Targaryen. To Aemond, only Daemon Targaryen remained a threat. Rhaenyra was unwilling to fight in battle, Nettles and Joffrey Velaryon were too inexperienced, and the rest of the dragon riders in the green camp, Aemond believed that taking out Daemon would cause most of the blacks faction to lose heart. He kept attacking the Riverlands, sending the message for Daemon to face him by himself. With most armies unable to move freely, uncle and nephew met at Harrenhal, and there engaged in a whirlwind duel of dragons. Vhagar was the larger dragon, but Daemon the more experienced rider, and Daemon, perhaps despairing with Rhaenyra’s attempt to arrest his lover Nettles, dove upon Daemon Targaryen, causing the loss of both men and both dragons. In an instant, both factions lost their most senior commander and their most powerful dragon, and the war would continue unabated.
The problems caused by the grasping dragonseeds would come to a head at the Second Battle of Tumbleton. With Aemond Targaryren dead, Daeron the Daring was the new heir-presumptive and with the disappearance of Aegon, the de jure King of Westeros. However, Hugh Hammer, the rider of the largest dragon and the most physically robust of the three dragonriders at Tumbleton, demanded a crown of his own. Such arrogance would give rise to a conspiracy called the Caltrops, where Lord Unwin Peake plotted to murder the Two Betrayers before their actions would cause any more harm to the green cause. Before their plan could be enacted, Addam Velaryon, leading a force of 4,000, would attack the greens at Tumbleton. Without this key disagreement, Addam Velaryon would likely have been ignobly slain, but the excesses of Ulf and Hugh had caused mass desertions of the green army and low morale among those who remained. Prince Daeron died mysteriously early during the battle, with the revelation likely being saved for a later date, but the Caltrops would have success. Jon Roxton slew Hard Hugh while he attempted to mount his dragon, and Hobert Hightower would poison Ulf the White and bring an end to these two wicked men.
The Battle of Stamford Bridge, by Peter Arbo
There are storied examples of kings and princes dying in glorious battle. Richard III, the last Yorkist king of England, died in the battle of Bosworth Field, but the chaotic death of so many claimants with varying levels of legitimacy to the Throne can be emphasized in the tail end of 1066, the chaotic year of two British invasions. Harold Godwinson, King of England, faced his brother Tostig, backed by the powerful King of Norway, Harald Hardrada. Alternatively, William the Bastard, with the backing of the Pope, launched his own invasion from Normandy. King Harold faced Harald at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. Harold ambushed his brother Tostig while he and his men were relaxing during a hot day, but the Norwegians under Harald were able to form a shieldwall and hold out, but King Harald was taken out with a lucky arrow to the throat, and Harald’s son Olaf made peace with Harold. Harold’s success would be short-lived, as he would be killed at the Battle of Hastings a few weeks later. Three kings, two dead, and one successful conquest later, and England became a lot more Norman.
With Addam’s death, Borros Baratheon marched his host from Storm’s End. The cautious Lord Paramount did not desire to face the dragons in battle, but following the Second Battle of Tumbleton and the fall of King’s Landing, there were no dragons left to oppose the Baratheon force. With much of Kings Landing under popular mobs led by the Shepherd, or Ser Perkin the Flea, Lord Baratheon’s large force found opposition to his advance largely disorganized and easy to rout. With barely any effort, Lord Baratheon marched into the city, expelled Rhaenyra’s remaining loyalists, arrested the pretenders to the throne Trystane Trueflame and Gaemon Palehair, and restored the city to Aegon Targaryen. However, even with the loss of Rhaenyra Targaryen, her supporters now looked to her young son, Aegon the Younger, as the new claimant. Aegon II was known to be harsh in reprisal, and Rhaenyra’s supporters were known to be fighting for Aegon the Younger as much to avoid Aegon’s wrath as support for legal principles of succession. With Corlys Velaryon arrested and abandoned by Rhaenyra, however, the only hope for Aegon rested in Lord Kermit Tully, the young lord of Riverrun.
Borros Baratheon would grow arrogant when he heard that most of the lords were younger sons and brothers, their seniors having been killed in one of the many bloody battles that characterized the Dance. Led by lords Tully and Blackwood, both men below the age of majority, and supported by Black Alysanne Blackwood, lord Blackwood’s aunt and possibly one of the few remaining adult members of House Blackwood, Borros advanced quickly and recklessly to do battle with this teenaged boy’s host. However, in a chaotic melee on the Kingsroad that would be dubbed ‘the Muddy Mess,’ Lord Borros had a terrible, and fatal, surprise waiting for him.
Like Pompey, Borros Baratheon held his foe in utter contempt, deriding the young lords that held command as nothing but children. With the dragonseeds all dead or fled by the end of the second battle of Tumbleton, and his own army flush with victory after driving the blacks out of King’s Landing, they felt that nothing could oppose them. Recklessly, Borros marched forward into a black trap. Flanked by the Blackwood knights, Borros’s heavy charge was brought down by archers. His escape cut off, Borros fought to the last, slaying two lords and probably more than that before the final tally was through, but he died at the sword of Lord Kermit Tully, and his host routed. Borros Baratheon learned what Pompey learned, the same lesson that Xerxes would learn at Salamis, that Jaime Lannister would learn at the Whispering Woods, the British would learn at Isandlwana, that Charles d’Albret would learn at Agincourt after disregarding the English longbowmen: contempt of your enemy breeds defeat. Lord Borros did not respect his enemy’s ability to do him harm, and thus his forces were defeated once battle started to turn against them. Now the greens had no army to defend Kings Landing with, from either the Riverlanders or the Northmen coming down the Kingsroad. For one man’s arrogance, he doomed his faction and his capital city, so recently liberated, to the whims of Lord Cregan Stark. Lord Stark would have the enviable position of being the only army left in the war, and thus, Aegon found himself without an army facing down an army of Northmen.
If the Fishfeed bears similarities to the Battle of Marathon, the equivalent for the Muddy Mess was the Battle of Pharsalus, the decisive battle between Caesar and Pompey which gave Caesar the support he needed to control the Republic. Pompey had amassed 40,000 legionnaires and approximately 10,000 auxila and cavalry forces at the most conservative estimates. He enjoyed command of the high ground and due to his ties to the native Grecian peoples, he had short, well-provisioned, and well-guarded supply lines. By contrast, Caesar had a mere 22,000 legionnaires, less than 2,000 cavalry, and anywhere from 5 to 10 thousand auxiliaries of his own. His troops were battle-hardened, but they were in dire straits, outnumbered at least two-to-one. Their backs were toward the sea, the troops faced an uphill march, there were little supplies under their control, and many already looked to picking out Caesar’s funeral toga, especially Pompey’s allied senators.
Caesar despaired at facing Pompey in open combat with such substantial disadvantages. The future dictator of Rome attempted to forge a peace, and even flee, but Pompey laughed off Caesar’s olive branch, and a sudden storm made crossing back to Italy impossible. Still, however, Pompey was reluctant to do battle against the wily Caesar, and was content to let hunger slay Caesar’s troops instead of fighting for the glory of tearing down his standard after gaining victory on the field. To Pompey’s allies and his chief field officers, however, such an act was cowardly and distinctly un-Roman, and so, unable to rein in the desires of his subordinates and beholden to his allies, he reluctantly gave the order to march for and give battle.
The Flight of Pompey after Pharsalus, by Fouquet
Caesar, reinforced by Mark Antony, and with his favored Tenth Legion, marched forward. Pompey ordered his legions to hold position, and let fatigue tire out Caesar’s men. Quickly seeing this, Caesar ordered his men to stop, rest, and eat, recharging their energy. Pompey kept his troops in position, and Caesar’s now rested troops were able to march forward and strike without suffering from the pangs of hunger and wear. Pompey used his cavalry to drive off the outnumbered Julian cavalry, hoping to attack Caesar’s legions from behind in a hammer-and-anvil maneuver, but Caesar had Pompey’s number. He prepared four lines instead of the usual three, one hidden behind his other three. There, with their spears fixed, they ambushed and overpowered Pompey’s cavalry. This sudden and unexpected rout of Pompey’s horse caused many of Pompey’s men, who had foreseen an easy victory, to lose heart and cohesion. Quick to seize advantage, Caesar committed his reserve force to break Pompey’s line, and Pompey fled in disgrace, tearing off his fine cloak and disguising himself as a common soldier to escape the carnage. Borros would not suffer the same disgrace, dying in battle, but without him, there was no Stormlander army to reinforce Kings Landing from the oncoming Cregan Stark.
The most striking thing about the Dance is how entirely brutal it is. In almost every battle, records tell of incredibly high casualties, even in engagements without dragons. This is to be expected, of course. Both factions were led by grasping and vindictive leaders, each of which would happily strip anyone from the opposing faction of their lands and their heads. Both enjoyed torturing and maiming their prisoners, and both would never relent in pursuit of everything they saw as theirs.
Even though Aegon II was incapacitated for the majority of the war, his personality flaws came to the forefront at all parts of the Dance, and arguably were one of the key reasons why his side ultimately was not victorious. Even after the death of the his rival claimant, and the only remaining heir safely within his custody, Lords Tully and Stark kept fighting out of fear of reprisal. This actually seems quite confusing, as by the time Stark and Tully arrived with their armies at Kings Landing, Corlys Velaryon had already been pardoned by Aegon and even elevated to the small council. Perhaps Aegon felt as though he couldn’t pardon everyone lest he lose his authority, or perhaps the early execution of Lord Darklyn had been seared into the rebel lords’ minds, or perhaps Aegon felt he could trust Corlys because he had been arrested by Rhaenyra. In any case, Aegon’s nature would mean that rebels would be slow in coming back to his side, preferring to fight for Aegon the Younger than bend the knee.
Ultimately, Aegon would be poisoned by his primary supporters and the two factions, weary of war, would force a peace by marrying Aegon the Younger to Jaehaera, appointing both black and green members to the small council, and agree that the war was over. Aegon II became one of those rare monarchs that won and lost the same war. In being succeeded by the heir of his enemy, Aegon again becomes Stephen of Blois, who ultimately won the Anarchy against Empress Maude. The peace treaty of the Anarchy was that Stephen would reign as king, and then Henry, Maude’s son, would be recognized as the heir. Stephen would die of stomach problems shortly thereafter. While Aegon would be felled by poison in GRRM’s trademark fantasy spin on history, the legacy of Stephen is easy to see in Aegon II.
In the greens, we see many lessons to learn about what not to do in a campaign, and the importance of recognizing your own strengths as well as your foe’s. Whether it was Aemond’s overwhelming desire for the glory of slaying his uncle Daemon, Borros Baratheon’s contempt of his foe, or Aegon’s vengeful cruelty preventing allies from bending the knee, the greens shortcomings would lead to none of their leaders seeing the end of the war, and leaving a broken king as the last man standing.