Artwork by Mark Simonetti
Hello again readers. Today I present you with my penultimate entry in the Three Heads of the Dragon series, Aegor ‘Bittersteel’ Rivers. Though not a pretender to the throne, Bittersteel played a central role in the Blackfyre Rebellions that plagued Westeros for decades. He was the left hand of Daemon Blackfyre, and he and his Golden Company would become the sword, armor, and shield of Daemon’s offspring. While the Blackfyre name might be on the name of the war, in many ways it was Bittersteel’s war to wage, and no examination of Targaryen royal pretenders would be complete without the man who drove them.
Aegor Rivers was a bastard born of the adulterous union of King Aegon IV ‘The Unworthy’ Targaryen and Lady Barba Bracken of the Riverlands. Though she was favoured by Aegon IV’s palette for a while, this would not be enough for Barba. When Queen Naerys was rendered infirm after a difficult pregnancy, Barba openly boasted of her desire to replace the Unworthy’s loathed sister-queen. Yet when Naerys recovered her health, Aegon’s favor was insufficient to protect Barba, for soon enough she would find herself exiled from Aegon’s court at the behest of Queen Naerys’s greatest two champions; Crown Prince Daeron II Targaryen and Aemon the Dragonknight. So it would be that the young Aegor would be raised away from the capitol and his father, and grew up in Stone Hedge, the seat of House Bracken.
Not only was he cast out and away from the delights of courtly life and his father’s company, Aegor would have to deal with a dishonour to his mother and her house when Aegon IV replaced Barba Bracken with Melissa Blackwood, a daughter of a house with whom the Bracken’s had been feuding with since time immemorial. Melissa would then go onto give birth to another bastard of Aegon’s, the albino Brynden ‘Bloodraven’ Rivers as well as two other bastard children.
To add more to Aegor’s already-impressive feelings of resentment and anger was the fact that though Aegon IV’s appetites would lead to him continually throwing away mistresses, Brynden Rivers and Melissa Blackwood would still be allowed to remain at court in spite of this, largely due to the popularity of Melissa Blackwood at court.
This is where the young Aegor’s rage and bitterness would begin to form. He was exiled, his mother was dishonoured, he was replaced by what he saw as a lesser freak, and neither his replacement nor his replacement’s mother were cast out by Prince Daeron and Prince Aemon like Aegor and his mother were. Aegor seethed at the perceived unfairness, at his exile for something he didn’t do. Making matters worse, when Aegor was but six, King Aegon found his new lover, Aegor’s aunt Bethany, abed with Terrence Toyne of the Kingsguard, and had both Bethany and her father executed, killing any chance of Aegor being welcomed back at court. Herself having lost a father and sister as well as royal favor, Barba Bracken would no doubt do little to curb her son’s rage during his youth at Stone Hedge.
Thus, in a bed of adultery, betrayal, and bloodshed, the start of Aegor’s lifelong vendetta against both the Targaryens and Bloodraven would begin and Bittersteel would carry that bile with him almost from the cradle to the grave.
An Unworthy Father
Artwork by Amok
Despite the role that both the Dragonknight and Daeron II played in the courtly exile of both Aegor and his mother, another source of Aegor’s rage at the Targaryens likely lays with his own father, Aegon IV.
As stated by my colleague on the blog, Aegon IV was a weak, cruel, and petty king who destroyed lives for the sake of his own whims. His merits as a father were non existent, and his treatment of Daeron II as well as his royal bastards represents his malignant selfishness. Fathering bastards may not be the most noble or honourable act but setting them against each other in order to spite Daeron II for doing his utmost to curb Aegon IV’s royal whims and for standing against his gluttonous father’s behaviour was disgusting. He made no secret of his beliefs about Daeron II’s alleged illegitimate paternity while outwardly praising, rewarding, and showering Daemon with gifts like the sword Blackfyre. Aegon IV hated that Daeron II stood up to him and went out of his way to set Daeron II and Daemon against each other, petty behaviour that is utterly reprehensible and unforgivable.
However, it was Aegon IV’s treatment of the Bracken’s that no doubt helped to poison his bastard Bracken son against him. Not only was Aegon IV too weak to keep Aegor and his mother at court, he also was unspeakably and ignorantly cruel in his selection of his mistresses too. Choosing Melissa Blackwood as his new mistress after the exile of Barba Bracken is a perfect example of this as is Aegon IV’s role in the naming of the Teats, a pair of hills in the Riverlands that apparently resemble a pair of women’s breasts. Naming them Barba’s then Missy’s Teats is a perfect visual metaphor for what an ignorant tit-head Aegon IV ultimately was when it came to inter-house relations. It wasn’t enough that Aegon IV had ruined the childhood of Aegor and dishonoured Barba and the Brackens themselves, the Unworthy also went on to take another Bracken mistress by the name of Bethany, who had been groomed by both her father and sister Barba to be the king’s mistress.
To add insult, Aegon IV later executed Aegor’s grandfather and aunt, after Bethany was found abed affair with Kingsguard knight Ser Terrence Toyne. These were people Bittersteel had likely been exposed to while living at Stone Hedge, people he likely loved.
Though he was but 12 years old, Aegor was more than old enough, especially in Westerosi society, to build up extreme anger and resentment towards his petty, gluttonous, whoremonger, and absentee father. A cretin of a man who had not only cast Aegor and his mother away from court but who had also dishonoured and killed members of Aegor’s immediate family, people he had grown up around.
Any person would despise their father if they and their family were treated like this, like toys to be played with, used, abused, and thrown away.
Happily, for both Aegor and the realm, Aegon IV would soon die but not before legitimising every single bastard child he had sired during his gluttonous, pathetic life as one last spiteful and vindictive act towards Daeron II.
Aegor Rivers was now legitimate but he would not take a new name for himself, not yet anyway.
Bitter Love and Bittersteel
Artwork by Amok
Of all the hate that Bittersteel had for others in his life, none held so much vitriol as the bastard born of the hated Blackwoods, Brynden Rivers, who would later be named Bloodraven. His mother was adored by the court with Brynden enjoying a life of relative opulence and privilege, and every asset that Brynden enjoyed, Aegor coveted.
While Aegor would spit bile over Brynden’s upbringing and the advantages and creature comforts that it afforded, it would not just be hatred and resentment that divided the brothers, later immortalized to the histories as Bittersteel and Bloodraven. Desire and love would also play its role in their estrangement, and not desire for position, land, honours, or wealth but rather the oldest desire in creation, desire for a woman.
Artwork by Amok
Yes, it was so that both Aegor and Brynden loved the same woman, a woman by the name of Shiera Seastar and another Great Bastard of Aegon IV Targaryen. Unfortunately for Aegor, Shiera Seastar opted to choose Brynden over him. While no reason is known for this, it is fair to speculate that Aegor’s hard and angry personality perhaps played a role in Shiera’s spurning of him. The feud and the divide between the brothers would only increase as a result of this. To Aegor, once again, Brynden would get something that he wanted, and his hate only grew fiercer and sharper.
“Bittersteel and Bloodraven both loved Shiera Seastar, and the Seven Kingdoms bled.” – A Dance With Dragons.
Swords of the Conquerors
Artwork by Mark Simonetti
While Daemon Blackfyre was specifically granted the Valyrian steel sword Blackfyre by Aegon IV, Bloodraven found himself being granted Dark Sister, Blackfyre’s sister sword, by Daeron II, much later. Despite being legitimised alongside his half-siblings, Bittersteel also found himself being skipped over once more and denied the opportunity to wield a sword of the Conquest generation, something that no doubt stuck in his craw and furthered his anger towards Aegon IV and the Daeron II as well as Bloodraven.
Artwork by Amok
To Aegor, everything that happened around him was something that would never break his way. Aegor was both intelligent and skilled at war, yet in every conceivable sense, he was always skipped over. Another man might condemn the fates for an unhappy life, but Bittersteel was made of different stuff. He would fixate on the people who represented every time he had been overshadowed, every time he was denied something he saw as something he was entitled to, every time someone took away something he wanted. And as his hate festered, his mind wandered, searching actively for a way to redress his grievances.
The Brotherhood of Bastards
Artwork by Amok
It was not just Bittersteel and Bloodraven who were legitimised by Aegon IV’s decree; all of the Unworthy’s bastards were legitimised. A significant bastard who was legitimised was Daemon Blackfyre, a man long in the king’s favour, something Aegon IV made no secret of. Daemon had not only been knighted and legitimised by Aegon IV but he was also gifted the legendary Valyrian steel sword that belonged to the Conqueror himself, Blackfyre. Unlike the sheepish sort of acknowledgement that happened with most bastards, Daemon’s recognition was full of ceremony, with the king knighting Daemon for his tremendous swordsmanship prowess. Bastard he may have been, but Daemon was a rising star with royal favor.
Though Daemon had his issues with the Targaryen regime, namely the loss of his beloved Daenerys to a Dornish prince, he had not shown any desire to rebel against the regime in any way. After all, he had largely been treated quite well under Daeron II’s rule, being gifted lands and a castle as well as being welcomed at court and allowed to retain Blackfyre.
Though it was Bittersteel who had the agenda against the Iron Throne and the Targaryens, Daemon would be his instrument. Despite Bittersteel being a great and respected knight, he lacked Daemon’s charisma, appearance, and his sword. If Bittersteel couldn’t win Shiera Seastar away from Bloodraven, he could hardly expect to win Westeros away from Daeron II. He needed an ace in the hole, a bastard like him who the people would rally behind and a Targaryen in everything but name. He needed Daemon Blackfyre, and Bittersteel would go to great lengths to acquire him, even going so far as to wed Daemon’s daughter Calla in order to permanently bind himself to Daemon.
“Bitter his steel may have been, but worse was his tongue.” – The World of Ice and Fire.
From there, Bittersteel would poison Daemon against the Iron Throne and fill his head with ideas of seizing it for himself as his father, Aegon IV, seemed to desire. Bittersteel would whispers of the regional disgruntlement against Daeron II, the poisonous Dornish influence at court, and how the lords and knights wished Daemon to ride in against his weak and unmartial half-brother Daeron II in order to save the realm. It would not just be Bittersteel who attempted influence but another knight disgruntled against Daeron II, Ser Quentyn Ball. Both of them filled Daemon’s head with ideas about his true rights to the Iron Throne, of how his knighting, legitimisation, and the sword Blackfyre were his father’s way of naming Daemon his true successor over Daeron II, of how the Dornish and Bloodraven were manipulating Daeron II for their own personal gain and to weaken the realm, and how the loss of Daenerys to the Martells showed just how weak Daeron II was against the Dornish influence. They went out of their way to play on every possible factor that could possibly appeal to Daemon in order to turn him against Daeron. Bittersteel would have his revenge against Daeron II and the Targaryens, and would use Daemon to do so, even if it took years.
Bittersteel and Ball would gather allies under the banner of the Daemon Blackfyre, the Conqueror reborn, who would right the wrongs of Daeron II; his marrying of Daenerys to the Martells, the welcoming of the Dornish in court, his replacement of Aegon IV’s councillors for his own men, and the vast privileges he granted the Dornish over traditional Westerosi lords in return for the Dornish joining the Seven Kingdoms. Daemon would return their positions gained under the Unworthy’s corrupt regime, would exile or kill Bloodraven and the Dornish, and would make Westeros a great martial power again.
For years they would plot and whisper sweet and poisoned words in Daemon’s ear until in 196 AC, Daemon Blackfyre finally declared his intention to claim the Iron Throne for himself.
Bittersteel had finally gotten what he desired and had ripped the realm in half to do so.
Vengeance, vengeance! The Seven Kingdoms for my vengeance!
As the realm divided, Bittersteel sided with Daemon along with many other disgruntled lords and knights who had chafed under the reign of Daeron II.
Their motivations ranged from the personal and familial to simple ambition for advancement, but whatever the reason, more and more houses joined the rebels, forming the largest and most credible royal rebellion the Targaryen dynasty had ever seen in its near-200 year existence.
Chief among Daemon’s allies were the greatest warriors of the age. Fireball and Bittersteel certainly, but also Robb Reyne and Redtusk, Gareth the Grey and Aubrey Ambrose, celebrated knights one and all.
The fighting erupted all over Westeros and battles were fought in the Vale, Riverlands, Westerlands, and elsewhere. Daemon’s chief lieutenant, Fireball, killed Lord Lefford at the gates of Lannisport and later defeated Lord Damon Lannister in turn, crushing the greater portion of the Westerlands and winning great acclaim both for Daemon’s cause and himself. Fireball would prove a decisive ally of both Bittersteel and Daemon, yet a day before the decisive battle at Redgrass Field, a nameless archer would shoot down the knight, with some even suspecting this nameless archer was either Bloodraven or one of his Raven’s Teeth.
The final battle of the war was fought on the Redgrass Field where Bittersteel led the the right of the Blackfyre host. However, and to the rage of Bittersteel, Daemon Blackfyre and his twin sons found themselves cut down by none other than the Raven’s Teeth led by Bittersteel’s greatest enemy, Bloodraven himself. Not only had Bloodraven, and his mother, replaced Bittersteel and his mother at court, been granted the Valyrian steel sword Dark Sister, granted honours and positions, and stolen the affections of Shiera Seastar, but Bloodraven had just cut down Daemon Blackfyre, Bittersteel’s greatest asset in his revenge campaign against the Targaryens.
Artwork by Jose Daniel Cabrera Pena
“This was followed by Bittersteel’s mad charge, with Blackfyre in his hand, as he attempted to rally Daemon’s forces. Meeting with Bloodraven in the midst of the charge, a mighty duel ensued, which left Bloodraven blinded in one eye and sent Bittersteel fleeing. But the battle came to an end when Prince Baelor Breakspear appeared with a host of stormlords and Dornishmen, falling on the rebel rear, while the young Prince Maekar rallied what remained of Lord Arryn’s van and made an implacable anvil against which the rebels were hammered and destroyed.” – The World of Ice and Fire.
While managing to maim his mortal enemy, using Blackfyre no less, Bittersteel was still defeated along with the Blackfyre forces. However, he was still able to escape Westeros with Blackfyre and Daemon Blackfyre’s surviving sons.
Though Daemon Blackfyre had perished upon the Redgrass Field, Bittersteel and his cause did not as they survived in exile, ready to rise again.
“Beneath the gold, the bitter steel.”
Artwork by Mark Simonetti
Bittersteel’s rage nor his resolved died in exile, and when he witnessed Blackfyre loyalists dissolving into various sellsword companies, he was watching any chance at revenge slip through his fingers.
Refusing to lose the chance, Bittersteel opted to form the Golden Company, an elite mercenary unit that was no doubt inspired by his own experiences among the Second Sons sellsword company.
Bittersteel would not lose the chance at revenge, he would keep the Blackfyre cause alive and use it and its supporters as he did Daemon Blackfyre, as an instrument of revenge.
Fortunately for Bittersteel, he had sons of Daemon Blackfyre, an entirely new generation to poison against the Iron Throne.
The Beasts from the Sea
Artwork by Arek
15 years after the First Blackfyre Rebellion, Gormon Peake met with Daemon II Blackfyre, the heir of Daemon I, and convinced him to come to Westeros to claim the Iron Throne.
Oddly enough, Bittersteel refused to give either his support or the storied sword Blackfyre to Daemon II and freely allowed the heir of Daemon I Blackfyre to freely march into enemy territory.
The fact that he allowed such a move showed how little faith he had in Daemon II as well as how little he actually cared for the Blackfyres. Another failed Blackfyre Rebellion would eat away at the house’s support, legitimacy, and image of strength, and Bittersteel would have absolutely known how dangerous it could be to the Blackfyre cause if he lost Daemon II to the Iron Throne and he still didn’t care.
The Blackfyres weren’t Bittersteel’s primary concern, revenge was and for him to have his revenge he needed a stronger Blackfyre candidate to rally his forces behind. If Daemon II died or was captured more was the better as it would clear a path for the succession of Haegon, Daemon II’s brother.
To paraphrase Walder Frey, Bittersteel would find another Blackfyre to prop up.
And so without his uncle’s support nor the support in Westeros, Daemon II’s rebellion failed and he was imprisoned, later dying in the custody of the Iron Throne.
In the year of 219AC, Bittersteel and Haegon I Blackfyre finally bestirred themselves from exile and launched an invasion of a weakened Westeros, taking advantage of a realm under the rule of Aerys I Targayen and still recovering from drought, Dagon Greyjoy’s reaving, general lawlessness, and the Great Spring Sickness. Westeros was practically ripe for invasion and both Haegon and Bittersteel were smart to hit the realm at this time.
“His Grace cares more for old scrolls and dusty prophecies than for lords and laws. He will not even bestir himself to sire an heir. Queen Aelinor prays daily at the Great Sept , beseeching the Mother Above to bless her with a child, yet she remains a maid. Aerys keeps his own apartments, and it is said he would sooner take a book to bed than any woman.” – The Sworn Sword.
Unfortunately for Bittersteel and Haegon, Prince Maekar Targaryen was of better quality than his kingly brother and led a valiant defence, alongside Aerion and Aegon Targaryen, and Bloodraven, of Westeros from the Blackfyres.
The failure of this rebellion was not uneventful as Bittersteel was able to duel Bloodraven once more, which resulted in Bittersteel’s capture. While Bittersteel was captured, Haegon was murdered despite yielding to the Targaryens. The identity of his killer thus far remains unknown but the main suspects are currently either Bloodraven or Aerion Brightflame.
However, Bittersteel’s fortune changed after he was dragged to the Red Keep and King Aerys decided to show Bittersteel mercy by offering him the chance to take the Black, something that Bittersteel agreed to do. Bittersteel’s luck did not end there as he found himself quickly escaping back into exile with the help of some Blackfyre sympathisers at court.
Bittersteel then moved to prop up another Blackfyre puppet to replace the dead Haegon by crowning Daemon III Blackfyre, Haegon’s eldest son.
Bitter Words and Bittersteel
Bittersteel was a master of manipulation and political propaganda, from the days of Daemon I to Bittersteel’s own death. The unjust killing of Haegon while he yielded and the later murder of Aenys Blackfyre under a peace flag from the Iron Throne itself were ideal opportunities to stir up anti-Targaryen sentiment.
This likely didn’t stop at the Blackfyre’s supporters but extended to the descendants of Daemon I Blackfyre as well. Bittersteel’s words successfully embittered generations of Blackfyres against Westeros, the Iron Throne, and House Targaryen by using Aenys and Haegon as symbols of Targaryen dishonour, treachery, and illegitimacy.
Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more; Or close the wall up with our Dragon dead.
Artwork by Randolfo
Soon enough the Blackfyre’s plotted another invasion and at the end of a hard and cruel winter, Daemon III Blackfyre and Bittersteel made landfall in Westeros at Massey’s Hook.
Landing at Massey’s Hook with the full force of the Golden Company behind them was a clever and dangerous move on Bittersteel’s part, and showcased his increasing desperation. Bittersteel clearly wanted to hit King’s Landing as quickly as possible even if it risked his forces being spotted by ships heading into Blackwater Bay as well as the possibility of having to fight entrenched Targaryen supporters within the Crownlands.
Unsurprisingly after three failed rebellions, the people of Westeros had simply had enough of Bittersteel and the Blackfyres, and Daemon III and Bittersteel found they had no support this time around. Furthermore, this time the invaders now had to fight an actively involved king, his three sons, and “knights” like Ser Duncan the Tall.
Soon enough, Daemon III’s rebellion was ended, and he along with it, at the Battle of Wendwater Bridge where the Blackfyre army was destroyed.
However and despite another inglorious defeat, Bittersteel managed to escape into exile again. Although, a few years later, his luck finally ran out as he perished in the Disputed Lands, ending the life one of the most fervent Blackfyre supporters. However, before he died, Bittersteel gave one last command. He ordered that his skull be boiled clean, dipped in gold, and carried before the Golden Company when they finally managed to cross the Narrow Sea and successfully retake Westeros. This last act essentially confirmed how Bittersteel viewed the Blackfyre rebels and his role in their rebellions, that they didn’t matter and the rebellions were all about him and his personal vendetta against the Targaryens, the Iron Throne, and Westeros.
Artwork by Scafloc
They say that when you go looking for revenge you should dig two graves, one for your enemy and the other for yourself. In Bittersteel’s case he should have dug graves for himself, the Blackfyres, and the many tens of thousands he condemned to death because of his own selfish desire for revenge against the Iron Throne and the Targaryens.
Bittersteel’s life was one perpetual cycle of personal insults and slights that followed him to the grave. His hate and bitterness was with him from the cradle to the grave. Being exiled from court, seeing his mother and her house dishonoured, being replaced by the Blackwoods, Bethany and his grandfather being executed by his own father, his mother filling his ears with her own hurt and resentment, his father’s personal weakness, Daeron and Aemon being partly responsible for his exile, and losing Shiera to Bloodraven, Aegor Rivers was born to be an angry and hate filled man whose sole occupation was destroying those who played a role in his painful life.
For a man who showed such unwavering commitment to Blackfyre supremacy and legitimacy, no matter what motivated him, it’s ironic that Bittersteel is the one who was ultimately responsible for destroying the Blackfyres. Without Bittersteel poisoning the minds of its various members, House Blackfyre may have survived into the present day as a respected descendant house like House Karstark.
To the Bittersteel, bitter in birth, bitter in life, and bitter in death, and a man whose hate condemned several generations and thousands to death.
“He died defeated and alone, a broken man in an alien land.” – A Dance With Dragons.