Hello and welcome once again to The Three Heads of the Dragon: Kings, Pretenders, and the Ladies of Fire, the first multi-author series for Wars and Politics of Ice and Fire. In this series, we are taking a comprehensive look at the Targaryen dynasty in Westeros, from its rise to power in the Conquest to its fall in Robert’s Rebellion. My pieces, the Ladies of Fire, will examine the queens and princesses of House Targaryen, as well as those ladies who had a substantial impact on the dynasty itself.
By the time the Dance of the Dragons had truly gotten underway, both the blacks and the greens had suffered personal losses – the death of Prince Lucerys Velaryon by Vhagar over Shipbreaker Bay and the beheading of Prince Jaehaerys Targaryen in vengeance for the former. Yet neither side would give any quarter. Though more dragons and she-dragons would fight and fall, neither Alicent not Rhaenyra would be satisfied until the crown belong to her faction and hers alone. So blindly dedicated to the cause of victory, neither appeared to understand that the death of the dragons was the death of everything they represented – for themselves and their dynasty.
Queen of King’s Landing: Rhaenyra’s “Conquest” of the Capital
The blacks had suffered a crucial loss at Rook’s Rest early in the Dance – not only Rhaenys Targaryen, a powerful symbol of Targaryen heritage in her own right, but also an experienced dragon of prime fighting size (and very nearly Corlys Velaryon himself, furious at his wife’s dying while Rhaenyra kept herself and her own sons out of danger). With Rhaenyra continuing to convalesce on Dragonstone, the only truly large dragon with a rider the blacks had in the field was Prince Daemon’s Caraxes. True, the Velaryon boys had dragons of their own, but Arrax had been easily torn apart by Vhagar above Shipbreaker Bay; it is unlikely any of these dragons were large at all, even if the Princess Rhaenys had judged them ready to bring fire and blood upon their enemies, and none had seen battle.
Jacaerys, Prince of Dragonstone, had taken charge to amend the situation (a poor reflection on his mother’s leadership skills). To fight dragons, Jace knew, one needed dragons. The greens had Vhagar, nearly as large as the Black Dread, as well as Prince Daeron’s Tessarion (and Dreamfyre, though Jace may not have known how broken and deeply depressed Helaena had become, unable to fly her dragon). The blacks had more beasts at their disposal, however, and Jace recruited the four individuals who could tame some of the riderless dragons of Dragonstone. The second and third largest dragons in existence, Vermithor and Silverwing, could now be sent into battle for the blacks, alongside the large wild dragon Sheepstealer and Laenor Velaryon’s own beloved Seasmoke. It was a force to be reckoned with; the blacks (without Rhaenyra) had inched that much closer to victory.
Despite having four new dragonriders, however, Rhaenyra and her faction could not be satisfied. Part of the problem was personal; the loss of Prince Jacaerys in the Battle of the Gullet cost not only the would-be queen a precious son but the blacks their heir to the throne and a dragonrider besides. This personal loss underlined the necessary step Rhaenyra had to take in order to keep her rebellion alive and with a chance of success. Until and unless Rhaenyra actually sat the Iron Throne and the lords of the land did obeisance to her, she would be no more than a self-proclaimed rebel queen, an outlet for antagonistic feelings toward the Hightower-Targaryens rather than the true heiress of Westeros. To take the throne – literally and legally – Rhaenyra needed to take King’s Landing, and for that, she herself would need to act.
Jacaerys’ death had not been planned, but the timing of his death, and the subsequent retaliatory move of taking the capital, actually worked to Rhaenyra’s favor. Only two dragons of fighting size and strength actually remained in the field for the greens: Vhagar and Tessarion. Sunfyre, severely wounded after Rook’s Rest, had disappeared (it remains an object of mystery why none of the black faction sent to deal with the crippled dragon shot arrows into its eyes, as would later happen with Tessarion); Dreamfyre, Queen Helaena’s mount, was chained in the Dragonpit, effectively riderless. The only other dragons in King’s Landing were Morghul and Shrykos, bound to Princess Jaehaera and her dead twin, and these were no more than six years old. The city might as well have had a bullseye painted on the Red Keep, so open did it appear to attack from the blacks and their dragons.
Of course, Dowager Queen Alicent had not desired this state of affairs. With King Aegon II barely alive after Rook’s Rest, the rule had fallen to her second son, Prince Aemond. The prince had a score to settle with his Targaryen uncle, however, and was determined to take Vhagar to Daemon and his rebellious riverlords. Alicent knew, rightly, that while Vhagar was larger than Caraxes, Daemon had the benefit of both much martial experience and a large host behind him. Even a dragon as large as Vhagar could be felled with the combined efforts of Caraxes and ground forces; Meleys, Gyldayn notes, might have held her own against Visenya’s mount at Rook’s Rest had Sunfyre not appeared. Queen Rhaenys, the queen dowager might have reminded her son, once thought herself a great warrior and dragonrider as well, and yet her dragon was felled by dragonless, grounded enemies. To these protestations, however – as well as those that Aemond summon Baratheon forces to his aid – Aemond merely turned his sapphire-studded blind eye; so long as Daemon remained in the field, he was the true threat. (It should be noted here that everyone – Aemond, Alicent, the entire green faction – acted seemingly without knowledge of the four new dragonriders on the blacks’ side. We must suppose that Aemond did not know about the Battle of the Gullet until after he set out for Daemon, or – possibly – that Aemond thought the dragonseeds would defect if Daemon were to fall to him. Still, even a prince as martial and headstrong as Aemond might have paused to leave the city dragonless with five other adult dragons – including the large Vermithor and Silverwing – poised to strike against it.)
So the end of 129 AC marked the acme of Rhaenyra’s triumph in the Dance. With Daemon flying south from Harrenhal, and with her own entire force of dragons (save Prince Joffrey, safe in the Vale with his Tyraxes, and Lady Baela Targaryen, still on Dragonstone with her Moondancer), Rhaenyra made a triumphal landing in the city. Apart from a short battle at the River Gate, the city’s defenders surrendered without a fight (assisted by the gold cloaks, still devoted to their old commander Prince Daemon); there would be no Blackwater-style dramatics for the would-be queen. Receiving the (grudging) surrender of the dowager queen, Rhaenyra achieved what she had so long desired: a place on the Iron Throne and – if not the lords of the realm – the entire population of the Red Keep doing her homage.
It was an important moment. The Iron Throne is the symbol of Targaryen kingship; forged from the swords of the Conqueror’s foes, it is a huge and visible reminder of its sitter’s power. Only a king or his Hand can sit the throne; even a queen regent must be content with sitting at its foot, as Cersei Lannister was during Tommen’s reign. By climbing the twisted steps and peering down at her newfound court from the high barbed seat, Rhaenyra was claiming full executive power for herself. Like Queen Rhaenys before her (who had on at least one occasion sat the Iron Throne herself), Rhaenyra claimed the seat not as a woman ruling for her royal husband, but as a queen in her own right, Lady of the Seven Kingdoms.
Yet for all Rhaenyra’s triumph – and this would be the last moment in her brief reign to win that distinction – the taking of King’s Landing would be a long-term symbolic disaster for the black faction.
Part of that disaster came from the dowager queen’s conduct. Though Alicent was no dragonrider herself, the dowager queen did not seem to fear the arrival of six full-grown dragons. The situation was hopeless and unwinnable, but Alicent rose to the challenge, sending the then-presumably-loyal gold cloaks to the city’s walls and riders to find Aemond; only Vhagar could hope to hold off the blacks’ dragons. While she had no dragons to throw against the black force, Alicent did have powerful lords sworn to her son, and these she bid the Grand Maester summon (though unsuccessfully). Even her Hightower forces distinguished themselves, with thirteen knights and a hundred men-at-arms holding off black land forces for eight hours. Through the entire “attack”, Alicent demonstrated calm, hardened courage in the face of overwhelming opposition. Like Marie Sophie of Bavaria, who as the last Queen of the Two Sicilies earned a “warrior queen” reputation by rallying the defenders of the last fortress of her kingdom, Alicent had shown a determination that likely only increased her natural popularity with the people of King’s Landing.
Nor in her treatment by Rhaenyra did Alicent lose this positive image. When the would-be queen landed in the Red Keep, Alicent proposed one final measure: a Great Council, like that of 101 AC, to choose the succession. What happened next remains virtually unexplained in Gyldayn’s account. Rhaenyra scorned the proposal and merely noted that “[w]e both know how this council would rule.” Rhaenyra’s statement may be understood in two different ways: either both knew that Rhaenyra was the rightful heiress (and thus a Council would be frivolous, since all would vote for her), or both knew that the lords of the realm would vote – sincerely or through bribery – for Aegon (as they had in 101 AC for Viserys). Either way, Rhaenyra’s rejection represented a major miscalculation on her part. Alicent could now claim to be the wronged champion of law, as respectful of the collective will of the realm’s lords as the great Jaehaerys had been almost three decades before. Rhaenyra, by contrast, now ruled only by right of force, as cruel Maegor had done, seizing the legitimate (that is, male) claimant’s place through the overwhelming strength of her dragons. The danger of losing in such a public forum, apparently, was too great for Rhaenyra, and with six dragons behind her, she – like the would-be king Renly a little more than a sesquicentury later – had no desire to submit to law what could be won through force.
In her haste to avenge herself against those she perceived had wronged her and take what was “hers”, Rhaenyra had crippled her own image campaign. By arriving in the city in armor, on dragonback, surrounded by dragonriders, Rhaenyra sent a clear message that she was a conqueror and warrior first. By executing members of the small council and putting the dowager queen in golden chains (despite her lack of any real agency to leave the black-controlled Red Keep), Rhaenyra had demonstrated how pitiless she would be to her perceived enemies. Instead of taking the model of Edward III (who, once entering a town in triumph, chose not to ride in on horseback but to walk in on foot, with his wife in one hand and his heir in another), Rhaenyra had chosen short-term vengeance over long-term reputation.
Even Rhaenyra’s triumph of sitting the Iron Throne would actually work against her, Having secured herself on the throne and received her due obeisance, Rhaenyra descended its twisted steps – only to find (allegedly) that Aegon’s high seat had cut her hands and legs bloody. None of the onlookers could mistake the obvious symbolism of this conclusion: the Iron Throne had spurned her, and the seat Rhaenyra thought she could take by rights had reminded her that no overconfident claimant was allowed to recline between its barbed teeth.
Did this actually happen? The best answer is “maybe”. Gyldayn was never noted as an eyewitness, and would have relied on a doubtless-biased primary source at best (like the notoriously pro-Aegon historian Septon Eustace – the same one who had possibly spread the story of Rhaenyra’s “monstrous” stillbirth. Eustace would still have been at court at this time and – in typical Rhaenyra fashion – would likely have been summoned to do homage to the rival of the man he had anointed as king). Certainly, Rhaenyra’s armor could have protected her from the Throne’s cruel barbs, at least on her first time sitting on it. Yet even if Rhaenyra had never been cut by the Iron Throne, the fact that the story remains underlines how much her reputation had suffered. Once again, Rhaenyra found herself compared to Maegor; everyone would have remembered how Maegor had been founded dead upon the Throne itself in an apparent suicide, and later storytellers would even allege that the Iron Throne had actually killed him itself. The potential for furniture with murderous consciousness aside, Rhaenyra’s historiography had, as a result of her own actions, taken a dramatic negative turn. In her youth she had been praised throughout the land as “the Realm’s Delight”; who could doubt in 112 AC that the beautiful princess dressed in her house colors and championed by a Kingsguard knight was the true heiress of the Targaryen lineage? Yet by 130 AC, that beautiful princess had shown herself to be needlessly cruel to those thought to be her enemies, pettily vengeful to the greens in the capital, and smugly convinced that the throne belonged to her and her brazenly illegitimate son. Such a ruler (never mind the fact that she was a woman, and as far from the feminine virtues of the Seven as possible) was the exact opposite of the politically canny Aegon I, the just Rhaenys, the conciliatory Jaehaerys and even the genial and conflict-averse Viserys (who, it might be noted, was himself badly cut by the Iron Throne after decreeing that all who called Rhaenyra’s Velaryon sons bastards would lose their tongues). How could this woman be worthy to follow these illustrious predecessors on the throne? Far more likely that the Throne itself, keeper of Targaryen authority, would spurn the vaulting ambition of its would-be queen.
From the Realm’s Delight to the Heiress of Maegor
Queen Rhaenyra (image credit to Enife)
Queen of King’s Landing she might have named herself, but Rhaenyra Targaryen was not – and would never be – actually sure in her power. Not all fault can be put on the would-be queen; her entire “reign” was dominated by war, and as long as any of the Hightower-Targaryens remained alive, Rhaenyra knew she would never have the full support of the realm. Even so, Rhaenyra’s reign in the capital was both brief and disastrous.
Targaryen kings were made by coronation, not popular approval, yet it would be foolishness to suppose that the people of King’s Landing (and the rest of Westeros) have no part to play in acknowledging a true king – or undermining a false one. Indeed, during Robert’s Rebellion, the smallfolk of Stoney Sept played a crucial role in ensuring Robert’s – and his cause’s – survival. Having received the young rebel lord, and knowing that the crown had already called for Robert’s head, the people of the village engaged in a seemingly universal game of deception. Instead of surrendering Robert to the authority of Jon Connington, Hand of the King, the people smuggled the Baratheon lord from house to house and boldly defied the crown’s orders. This smuggling allowed crucial time for Hoster Tully and Eddard Stark to descend upon Stoney Sept with their own hosts and for Robert, emerged in triumph, to send the griffin flying. The people had no love for Aerys II, a monstrous figure hidden away in the Red Keep who had cruelly murdered the Stark lord and heir. Robert – handsome, brave, charismatic, first on the walls of Gulltown, the vanquisher of Marq Grafton and Lord Fell, the very beau-ideal of a warrior-king – had won their affections and support, even at the risk of their own lives.
Rhaenyra might have similarly won the people’s’ affection during her brief tenure in King’s Landing. Westerosi tradition has specifically carved a place for the merciful queen, personification of the Mother Above, who cares for her subjects as her own children. A lord might take as his model the stern and blindly just Father, or the coldly martial Warrior, but a lady can, without reproach (and even with some expectation), beg for the lives of even those found guilty of crimes (as Sansa Stark had done before her fiance Joffrey, when informed of her father’s “treason”). Two Targaryen queens before Rhaenyra had even been lauded for their mercy and gentle hearts. Rhaenys, acting as a queen-lawmaker in her own right on the Iron Throne, had limited the amount of abuse women could receive at their husbands’ hands, and was known for her charity to ordinary people. Her granddaughter Alysanne had likewise shown herself empathetic to the plight of smallfolk women by persuading Jaehaerys to abolish the lord’s right to the first night.
Instead, Rhaenyra again chose vengeance over mercy. Yet in her desire to eliminate all those who had dared question her right to rule, Rhaenyra actually ensured that even more would doubt whether this cruel, vindictive woman could truly be Lady of the Seven Kingdoms.
The people of King’s Landing may have excused Rhaenyra’s execution of Otto Hightower, Jasper Wylde, and Lords Stokeworth and Rosby when she came into her power. Hightower and Wylde had specifically – and traitorously – denied the Edict of Succession promulgated and never repealed by Viserys I, while Rosby and Stokeworth, once blacks, had turned their cloaks. Yet few would be able to forgive Rhaenyra’s mandated manhunt for the young Hightower-Targaryen royals Jaehaera and Maelor. Aegon II was as traitorous as his grandfather and Master of Laws had been, but Jaehaera was a girl of six, Maelor a toddler of two; both had watched Jaehaera’s twin Jaehaerys be beheaded, and their “treason” went no farther than mere blood connection. No Westerosi of good conscience would be eager to surrender either of the young royals to the queen’s “knights inquisitor” (the very name of which implies a sinister application of focus), especially knowing what Rhaenyra (through her much-distrusted husband Daemon and his dark connections in the city) had ordered done to the Jaehaerys, the innocent heir to the throne. Like Jon Arryn, who refused to turn over his wards to certain execution despite Aerys’ demand, the ordinary people refused to surrender these innocents to the cruel intentions of a scabbed, vengeful monarch.
Nor did Rhaenyra’s arrogance in her own position end there. Having secured the city for her own, Rhaenyra arranged to bring her last “Velaryon” son Joffrey to King’s Landing from his refuge in the Vale (as well as her elder son with Daemon, Aegon the Younger, from Dragonstone). If the kingslanders were dismayed to see yet another riding-size dragon enter the city (though this was presumably the youngest dragon “of fighting size” in the Dance), they would have been still more frustrated by Rhaenyra’s plans for his royal rider. Instead of sending Prince Joffrey into the field – utilizing his young dragon’s quick speed for reconnaissance against the fled Hightower-Targaryens (or even sending Ser Addam Velaryon to do so and leaving Prince Joffrey as the rider in the Dragonpit) – Rhaenyra instead planned a lavish induction ceremony to name him Prince of Dragonstone. Winter had come, and resources strained by the ordinary course of seasons had been further taxed by the hardships of the war. Now Rhaenyra not only presumed to use the city’s precious resources for a party, but dared to flaunt her obviously bastard son as the center of it. The people could feel sympathy for Prince Lucerys, torn apart as an envoy by Aemond and Vhagar, and perhaps even for Prince Jacaerys, brought down in glorious battle, leading the attack as befits a crown prince in Westeros’ martial society. Yet how could the people of the city sympathize with a woman who had not only profanely defiled her marriage with three bastards, but now demanded (beyond even the most liberal rights accorded to lords and kings) the people to swear a false oath to her son’s legitimacy? Aenys’ High Septon, were he alive, might have called Rhaenyra “Queen Abomination”, but even without this epithet, Rhaenyra had grossly misjudged her position and support.
It was not just the ordinary people of King’s Landing who were quickly growing weary of Rhaenyra’s rule. Despite her education at her father’s side, Rhaenyra had not learned the first lesson about rule: though a king should fight those enemies that give him battle, he must also help raise back up those who bend the knee to him. Aegon the Dragon knew that well enough: families like the Starks, Lannisters, and Arryns were much too ancient and revered in their seats to be displaced once they had acknowledged his power over them. Indeed, Aegon demonstrated that he honored the bloodlines of Westeros when Orys Baratheon married the heiress of his foes, the Durrendons, carrying forth their words, sigil, and lineage even after Argilac’s death.
Corlys Velaryon knew this truth as well. With Rhaenyra, her sons, and her “black” dragons snug in the capital, the old adventurer proposed peace terms. Alicent and Helaena could be sent to the Faith and the three Hightower-Targaryen princes to the Wall – both traditional means of eliminating troublesome family members, acknowledged and respected among the Westerosi. Pardons could be offered to the Baratheons, Hightowers, and Lannisters, which together with the promise of hostages offered an honorable surrender (attractive with the coming of winter). It was a redux of the beginning of the war, only now with Rhaenyra in the seat of power. What Gyldayn had described as “generous” terms from Aegon II now came from Corlys: honorable imprisonment for the Hightower-Targaryens, pardons for the traitorous lords with hostages as per tradition, and a marriage pact between Aegon and Jaehaera, to bind up the wounds of the war.
That Rhaenyra did not accept may be guessed even by those unfamiliar with the history. Like King Maekar many years later, Rhaenyra’s consort Daemon would dismiss the idea of pardoning rebels; even more impossibly, Daemon advocated giving Storm’s End and Casterly Rock to the bastard dragonriders. Rhaenyra did not join Daemon on this foolish course of action (which would have prompted every millennia-old house in Westeros to fear for its seat and turn against Rhaenyra), but she did refuse to send terms to the Baratheons and Lannisters until after the Hightower-Targaryens were dead or captured. Peace would likely have been possible with at least the Lannisters in this moment: Lord Jason and his subsequent commanders were dead, the ironborn harried their western shores, and Rhaenyra had six dragons (excluding Tyraxes and Moondancer). With at least the Lannisters retracting their claws, Rhaenyra would have had that much more support against the outlaw Aegon II; the more (and powerful) lieges reinforcing the monarch’s decision, the less likely the people would be to risk their necks for a king they had never loved. Yet with Rhaenyra refusing pardons – and openly awaiting the day she could display the severed heads of the green men and beasts as testament to their treason – the pro-green lords had little to gain from turning to her side. Who could say whether Rhaenyra would not put the heads of Lord Jason’s heir and Lord Borros on pikes as well; had they not been as “traitorous” as the rest?
Even to her allies, Rhaenyra would be foolishly cruel. With the treason at Tumbleton becoming public knowledge (and Alicent making a harsh joke at Rhaenyra’s expense – even the pragmatic Alicent was not above the little vengeance she could seize as Rhaenyra’s gilded prize prisoner), Rhaenyra allowed herself to be swayed to an extremely unwise course. The Two Betrayers had been born of bastard stock; according to the men of Rhaenyra’s council, their treason had come as a direct consequence of their devious bastard natures. (No one, wisely, brought up the strong possibility that Rhaenyra’s sons were bastards themselves, though surely the thought was present in the minds of at least some of the councillors.) Convinced that all her new dragonriders were determined to betray her – every one had been a bastard, after all – Rhaenyra ordered the arrest of Ser Addam Velaryon, official dragonrider-in-residence at the Dragonpit.
Rhaenyra made many foolish mistakes during the Dance, but this was perhaps the most grievous error of all. Ser Addam Velaryon had been a faithful dragonrider and champion of the blacks, a participant in the Battle of the Gullet and the taking of King’s Landing. More importantly, Ser Addam was rumored (probably truly) to be Lord Corlys Velaryon’s natural son, and Corlys spoke highly of Ser Addam and his likewise-legitimated brother Alyn. Only Corlys defended Addam against the slanders of the rest of the council; when Addam fled on Seasmoke ahead of his arrest, Corlys all but admitted he himself had warned the boy to flee, causing Rhaenyra to imprison the famous Sea Snake. With Addam’s flight and Corlys’ arrest, Rhaenyra had lost not simply a dragon and dragonrider (which, having lost the formidable Vermithor and Silverwing already, she could not afford), but her most powerful lordly ally and Hand. Corlys commanded half her army and her entire remaining naval force (other than Dalton Greyjoy’s longships, who were less her friends and more the enemies of her enemies and on the wrong side of the continent anyway); with Lord Velaryon beaten and imprisoned, the Velaryon soldiers hitherto sworn to her cause had no more reason to follow her. It would have been the smallest and most ironic of comforts for Rhaenyra that Addam did prove to be loyal to her cause; nevertheless, she had been extremely unwise to risk his turning against her by attempting to arrest him and actually imprisoning his foster/actual father.
Rhaenyra would make the same mistake with Nettles – with similarly injurious consequences. Having concluded (probably rightly) that Nettles and Prince Daemon had become romantically involved as they flew the Riverlands looking for Vhagar and Aemond, Rhaenyra ordered Lord Mooton to execute her while she and Daemon rested at Maidenpool. “The Old King would never have asked that of any man” was Lord Mooton’s indignant commentary when he received the raven’s message, and his response reveals how low Rhaenyra had fallen. Jaehaerys was the personification of Westerosi law and justice (as, after all, he had written most of it). The idea of murdering a guest (in defiance of anciently and sacredly held guest right), an innocent (in defiance of the Father’s justice), and a young woman (in defiance of the rules of chivalry) was completely anathema to the just, faithful Jaehaerys’ legacy. Even Daemon, who had never been above cruelty and deception in his personal life, recognized how terrible Rhaenyra’s demand was. His wife had publicly censured him for taking a mistress – something no self-respecting Westerosi lady would ever do, however much her husband’s infidelities shamed her (especially not with Rhaenyra having enjoyed an extra-marital affair herself). Far from her supposed “treason”, Nettles had been to this point faithful to the blacks; even if she had wanted to betray Rhaenyra, it is unlikely Daemon would have given up the prestige he would have enjoyed as Prince Consort to side with his Netty against his wife’s political cause.
There was, in short, no reason for Nettles to die, and definitely no reason for Rhaenyra to order it so. Rhaenyra also had reason to conclude the Mootons would never carry out such a brutal deed; any Westerosi lord would have been the worst of pariahs to his neighbors for doing the same (think of House Frey, which even among its political allies is vilified for the Red Wedding, to the point where some seek royal justice for the betrayal of guest right). Her order instead lost her another dragonrider and dragon (in Nettles and Sheepstealer), the allegiance of the Mootons, and, soon after, her consort and his dragon themselves. Rhaenyra now had two fewer vassals and three fewer dragons left to her cause; her greatest champions, Prince Daemon and Lord Corlys Velaryon, were dead or imprisoned at her own order. Little remained to Rhaenyra’s war effort: her own dragon Syrax, Joffrey and his Tyraxes, and the city which threatened to explode with rage at her at any moment.
A wit might have called Rhaenyra “Maegor with teats”, but the sentiment that anonymous wit expressed was no laughing matter. Maegor had fallen specifically because, through his cruelty and anti-Faith policies, he had lost the respect and fealty of lords and smallfolk alike. Like Maegor, Rhaenyra actively sought (and achieved, with Prince Jaehaerys) the destruction of rival family members. Like Maegor, Rhaenyra had insulted the Faith (through her brazen affairs, bastard offspring, and refusal of justice). Like Maegor, Rhaenyra seemed to draw total authority from her dragonpower, and appeared not to care how many – or how powerful – forces stood against her. Only Prince Aerion would be cruel and foolish enough in later days to reinvoke the name “Maegor” for his own son; Rhaenyra had gotten the epithet unwillingly, but she had most certainly earned it.
The Fall of the House of Rhaenyra
What had begun so triumphantly for Rhaenyra months before – the taking of King’s Landing and the beginning of her formal rule – was collapsing on her twice as quickly as it had come to be. As a ruler, she had proven hated and feared by her King’s Landing subjects; as a conqueror, she had done no more than put on her own armor and watch others fight and die for her cause. She had starved her people through high taxation and used that money for gross excess. Her allies were exhausted, three of her five sons were dead or missing, and her people had nothing but hatred for the woman they had once loved and cheered.
The Storming of the Dragonpit delivered another crushing blow to Rhaenyra’s toppling regime. Rhaenyra could not have known that the Shepherd would direct his crazed flocks to seek the deaths of the city’s dragons, yet the move was not entirely unpredictable. From the first moment of her rule in King’s Landing, Rhaenyra had established herself as a dragon-based conqueror, one who ruled on the fear of her subjects. That any city should be afraid of dragons should come as no surprise; the destructive force of the Targaryens’ beasts had won them their crowns and kept them, at least partly, in power. With six – including the second- and third-largest dragons in existence – having landed with Rhaenyra in the city, the kingslanders knew they faced a terrible fate should they find themselves on the wrong side of the dragons. Thousands had already perished in dragonflame during the war; should Aemond and Daeron attempt to take back their home city, thousands more, innocent civilians, would surely die horribly.
So given the right symbolic motivator – the suicide (or supposed murder) of the beloved, much-wronged Queen Helaena – it should have come as no surprise to Rhaenyra that the disaffected, terrified people of King’s Landing would rise against her. Gyldayn, describing the riots in King’s Landing, gives the most apt, and fatal, summary: “They [the rioters] no longer believed the queen could protect them.” That loss of trust from subject to liege is the death knell for any feudal lord’s rule. Feudalism is a system built on an exchange of trust – the king trusting that his lords will remain faithful and honor their commitments to him, the lords trusting that the king will defend their rights against other lords. Losing that bond severely undermined Rhaenyra’s queenship; one cannot be a queen without subjects, after all.
The Storming of the Dragonpit (image by Paolo Puggioni)
Rhaenyra had lost her people – but there would be more devastating losses shortly thereafter. As the common kingslanders swarmed into the Dragonpit, desperate to slay the dragons stabled therein, Prince Joffrey Velaryon decided to act. Thirteen years old, Joffrey had been kept out of the war by his frightened, protective mother; he had spent months in the Vale under the protection of his cousin Jeyne Arryn, and had only lately been called to King’s Landing and his mother’s side. Both of his brothers had died on dragonback, and Joffrey was as eager as they were to give to the black cause. Rhaenyra, however, refused to use him; he was her heir, the only “Velaryon” son left to her. As heir to the throne, Joffrey might have won back some much-needed sympathy by taking part in the war (either in the field, squiring for his stepfather Daemon, or holding the post of official rider in the Dragonpit); instead, the populace likely saw him only as the product of his mother’s adulterous passion and the cause for wasteful celebration.
Joffrey had a way to help the cause: his dragon Tyraxes. Aloft, Joffrey could help control the crowds and defend his mother in the Red Keep. There was only one problem: Tyraxes, with three of the greens’ dragons, was chained in the Dragonpit, on the Hill of Rhaenys. Cutting through the kingslanders outside to get there would be suicide; the mobs were too large and bloodthirsty. So Joffrey made a fatal decision: he loosed Rhaenya’s dragon, Syrax, lept onto her back and made for the Dragonpit.
Syrax was the only dragon outside the Dragonpit in King’s Landing. While Tyraxes had been confined to the Dragonpit upon his arrival in the capital, Syrax had been chained in a stable in the outer ward. One cannot blame Rhaenyra for keeping only one dragon in the Keep; the Dragonpit had been expressly designed to hold dragons, after all, and Rhaenyra could not have foreseen the bloody uprising in the capital. Yet at no point did Rhaenyra make any move to mount Syrax herself. By the time Joffrey lept onto Syrax, King’s Landing was falling fast, with three of the seven gates of the city overtaken by enemies. Her commanders and knights were being butchered in the streets, and even if aid did come from her remaining allies in the North and Vale, the men would take days if not weeks to arrive. The one card remaining to Rhaenyra was Syrax, the only adult dragon with a rider left in the realm – yet Rhaenyra refused to act on it. Her reign was in tatters, yet Rhaenyra made no move to salvage it. Riding her dragon high above the streets, losing Syrax’s flame onto the maddened hordes below – these would be drastic measures, to be sure, but drastic measures were all Rhaenyra had left. She had been compared to Maegor throughout her reign; yet now, just when Maegor would have taken action (as he did against the Sept of Remembrance), Rhaenyra did nothing.
The death of Joffrey Velaryon cannot be blamed on his mother. As a dragonrider in a large extended family of riders, Joffrey should have known that a dragon will permit only one rider at a time. Joffrey had likewise been foolish in failing to secure Syrax with whip or saddle; only Daenerys Targaryen is recorded to have flown without a saddle, and even she made liberal use of a whip in directing her bonded dragon. It was a desperate, and foolish, hope on Joffrey’s part that Syrax would tolerate him long enough to reach the Dragonpit and his own Tyraxes. Yet Rhaenyra still merits some blame – not for the death but for the circumstances. Had she made Joffrey the rider in the pit, especially after Addam Velaryon fled, Rhaenyra could have ensured that Tyraxes, at least, would escape the mobs, and perhaps the other pit dragons as well. By not using her great yellow dragon – either for fire and blood or for flight – Rhaenyra let Fate – hardly kind to her by this point – decide what happened to Syrax.
As it turned out, the mob happened to Syrax. Riderless since shaking off Joffrey, Syrax had no direction and no motive. Probably, the dragon was drawn by the smell of blood and fire on the ground. Even a dragon who has not hunted in years has instincts, and Syrax would have been no different. The collection of hundreds and thousands of men and women, screaming and shouting with the dying dragons inside the burning Dragonpit, was not an opportunity Syrax would pass. Descending to their level, Syrax burned and devoured scores, finally indulging in the bloody combat denied her the entire Dance. Yet the mobs still numbered too many, and on the ground their members overran the large dragon. The death of Syrax was the final blow to Rhaenyra’s reign in King’s Landing; without a dragon, with only a handful of ground forces, Rhaenyra could no more hold the city than she could fight the mobs alone.
The Dying Days of the She-Dragons
Her Velaryon sons and her dragon dead, her supporters reduced to a handful of ladies and faithful knights, her city overrun and not terribly keen on having her any longer, Rhaenyra needed to flee the city. Even in flight, however, Rhaenyra would be reminded of her vastly fallen fortunes. Lord Stokeworth allowed her to stay for only one night, and Lady Meredyth Darklyn – kin to that first faithful Queensguard, Steffon Darklyn – nearly shut her out, and only at her cousin Ser Harold Darke’s persuasion allowed the party to stop for a brief stay. That Rhaenyra had previously executed two (albeit traitorous) Crownlands lords had likely won her no favor with their remaining brethren. Rhaenyra now needed their assistance, but the rulers of the Crownlands were deaf to her pleas – just as much as she had once been deaf to mercy in her pursuit of vengeance, and just as Maegor’s onetime bannermen had been at the end of his reign.
The situation had become so hopeless for Rhaenyra – once feted as the first lady of Westeros – that she sold her crown simply to buy passage to Dragonstone. The crown of Viserys I and Jaehaerys before him, the last symbol of rule belonging to her, disappeared into a nameless merchant’s hands, never to be seen again. The move recalls Viserys Targaryen’s selling of Queen Rhaella’s crown to buy food in Essosi exile, and in both the parties would have been painfully aware of what their deeds meant: divested of symbolic royal authority, Rhaenyra and Viserys were stripped of actual authority as well. Other Targaryens lost their crowns – Daeron the Young Dragon in Dorne, probably Aegon V at Summerhall – but only Rhaenyra suffered the indignity of having to sell hers. It was perhaps the nadir of Rhaenyra’s “reign”: the abandonment of everything to which she had laid claim – her blood succession right (as depicted by the crown) and royal authority (as depicted by the Iron Throne, many leagues behind her) – and a painful reminder of her lost cause (she would not have had to pay for passage, after all, had the Velaryons not turned against her, or had she still had a dragon, or had the capital not violently risen against her).
Back on Dragonstone, another she-dragon remained – and this one, like her grandmother, would not abandon the black cause without a fight. Lady Baela Targaryen was one of the twin daughters of Prince Daemon by his second wife, the fiery Laena Velaryon (it is unclear why Baela and her sister, great-granddaughters of King Jaehaerys through the male line, were not styled “Princess”). Blood of the dragon on both sides of her lineage (Lady Baela’s maternal grandmother was the Princess Rhaenys, the “Queen Who Never Was”, who had fallen with her dragon at Rook’s Rest), Baela was “as fearless as her father”, according to Gyldayn (perhaps unsurprisingly, since she had been named after her grandfather, Baelon the Brave). She had, according to the best Targaryen tradition, been given a dragon egg when very young; her sister’s hatchling had died early, but Baela’s lived, a pale green she-dragon called Moondancer. Though she had been born in Pentos and lived her first few years on her mother’s home of Driftmark, Baela soon made the island of Dragonstone her home (after her father married her second cousin once removed, Rhaenyra). That she had spent the majority of her life on the Targaryens’ first home would prove very useful as the Dance came to an end.
Dragonstone had surrendered virtually without a fight to the severely wounded Aegon II. Rhaenyra, in another thoughtless move, had ignored the dour but long-serving Ser Alfred Broome for the position of castellan, choosing instead the genial but ineffectual Robert Quince. Accordingly, Broome led the traitors within Dragonstone, himself killing Quince while his men seized the armory, rookery, and other parts of the castle. Yet in one respect, Broome had failed; his men had attempted to capture Baela, but the Dragonstone near-native eluded their grasp.
We cannot know why Baela chose to do what she did next. Possessed of one of the last dragons (though Baela could not have known that), she might have seized the opportunity to flee – to her sister in the Vale, to her birthplace of Pentos, anywhere. Moondancer was young – Princess Rhaenys did not count her in the list of dragons Rhaenyra had at her disposal at the beginning of the Dance – but sufficiently big enough to fly and engage Sunfyre in battle with Baela as her rider. Yet Baela never seems to have contemplated fleeing Dragonstone. Perhaps Baela was inspired by the example of her grandmother Rhaenys, who had taken on both Sunfyre and Vhagar and paid with her life; for a girl seemingly largely ignored during the entire war, a chance to imitate her heroic grandmother (as well as that other Rhaenys, who had brought fire and blood during the Conquest) was too tempting to refuse for cowardly flight.
So Baela, unchaining and saddling Moondancer, took to the sky against her cousin and foe Aegon II. Moondancer could not defeat even the heavily wounded Sunfyre, but the she-dragon dealt a number of crippling blows to Aegon’s mount. While Sunfyre had gradually been getting stronger on Dragonstone, even flying again (albeit unsteadily, with his malformed wing) and partially devouring the Grey Ghost, Moondancer assured that the dragon which had been Aegon’s pride would not only never fly again, but never recover. Nor would Baela give up the fight, even (nearly) to the cost of her life; while Aegon leapt from his dragon as the two beasts hurtled toward the earth, Baela remained in her seat until impact, severely wounding her.
The dragons had danced for the last time. Rhaenyra, arriving to her old seat, was instead taken by Dragonstone’s traitors and presented to Aegon II and the permanently grounded Sunfyre. Rhaenyra’s last recorded words – a promise that her “leal lords” would find her – speak to her fundamental misunderstanding; even now, driven out of a city that hated her and arrested on her own ancestral seat, Rhaenyra believed lords who had watched her show no mercy would rally to her cause. Even if she had been right, Aegon would not indulge her fantasy. As petty and vengeful as Rhaenyra – but with fewer opportunities to demonstrate it, and with (usually) a moderating force in his mother – Aegon presented his half-sister to his dying dragon.
Rhaenyra had never gone into battle, and Aegon had only ever seen action twice, at Rook’s Rest and Dragonstone. There was no great single combat in the Dance, as would come in the Blackfyre Rebellion and Robert’s Rebellion, where two mortal enemy commanders dueled to the death for the righteousness of their causes. Yet Rhaenyra’s end was perhaps equally fitting. She had started the war with more dragons than her half-brother, yet by her own folly and misrule all had died, disappeared, or turned on her. Rhaenya faced Aegon with all that she had left: her own body and the blood claim which had coursed through her veins since Viserys’ proclamation long ago. Only the former mattered to the ravenous, dying Sunfyre.
Rhaenyra Facing Her Death (art by Arthur Bonzonnet)
Conclusion: The Kids Are (Not) All Right
With the death of Rhaenyra, the Dance of the Dragons was truly over. Aegon II had won: the throne was his, the rule was his, and the half-sister who had so violently dared to challenge him had been slain (and eaten) by his own dragon.
Yet the victory came at a hideous cost. Of the 17 Targaryen “castle dragons” alive at the war’s beginning, only one remained at the end: the now-riderless and soon-wild Silverwing. Of the 17 Targaryens and half-Targaryens alive at the beginning of the Dance, only five remained in Westeros by its conclusion, and nearly all from the younger generation: Aegon II (who would soon die), Aegon the Younger, Jaehaera, Baela, and Rhaena (though Viserys would return from Lysene exile during Aegon III’s reign). For the last time in the history of the dynasty, tens of thousands of Westerosi perished in battles dominated by fire-breathing monsters of the sky. Great lords and nameless soldiers alike found their deaths at the points of swords and upon the tips of pikes, in reedy waters and city streets, under bursts of flame and amidst sheer human madness. What Jaehaerys and Alysanne had tried so carefully to avoid had come to pass: two branches of House Targaryen had warred against one another, and the resulting struggle had come extremely close to demolishing the entire royal house.
It was the end of an era. For the last time, a woman in Westeros claimed to sit the Iron Throne in her own right. For the last time, women took to the sky on dragonback and proved themselves as courageous in battle as Rhaenys and Visenya before them. For the last time, women played a central role in conducting a Westerosi civil war. It was the last true dance of the she-dragons.
In one way, the war’s cruelest victims were its women. Rhaenyra and Alicent bet everything they had – their queenships, their reputations, and their children – to come out on top in the War of the Targaryen Succession. Neither could have known the sheer level of destruction the Dance would demand, and one wonders whether either would have committed herself so extremely to the cause of victory if she had known that all but Rhaenyra’s two youngest sons and Alicent’s eldest son and granddaughter would be swallowed by the war’s gaping jaws. The most pitiable, though, was Queen Helaena. She did not choose to be born a Hightower-Targaryen, but she conducted herself with grace and dignity; she did not choose to be wed to her brother Aegon, but she remained faithful to him and bore him three children. Yet her reward was to be assaulted, forced to name one of her children to die, see another be beheaded before her, and from thence fall into so deep a depression that suicide was her only escape from grief.
Yet it was the children who survived for the most part, and the children who would bear the brunt of this hideous civil war. Some, of course, did not live to see the end of it: young Jaehaerys, sadistically beheaded for vengeance; baby Maelor, torn apart in a desperate attempt to spirit him to safety; the three nominally Velaryon boys, all dead on dragonback, fighting their mother’s war. The survivors of the next generation would carry the scars of the Dance with them for life – whether, like Baela Targaryen, on their body or, like Aegon the Younger, deep in their morose hearts.
House Targaryen would rise again from the ashes, but part of it had died never to reawaken. The truly draconic part of the House would soon be gone, the last dragon dying during the reign of Aegon III, hence named “the Dragonbane”. For the Ladies of Fire, an entire age had passed as well: the age of the great Targaryen ladies. The time when Rhaenys and Visenya forged crowns from conquest right alongside their brother was gone, never to return for as long as the dynasty lasted in Westeros. The age when a Targaryen queen could be as much as ruler as her consort, like Alysanne, had passed as well. The fall of the Princess Rhaenys was the beginning of the end of this high mark of Targaryen ladyship, though Rhaenyra’s death would close it definitively. Never again in the history of the dynasty would a Targaryen lady be trusted with so much power, and never again would one seek it. The Death of the Dragons was the Death of the She-Dragons as well; Targaryen ladies would come after Rhaenyra, but none with such lofty regal ambitions.