Word arrived late in the day from Blackhaven, and the words were as black as the wings of the raven that carried it:
The last part of the king’s army, believed to have been making its progress on the Boneway, had been due at Blackhaven two weeks or more by this point, if all had been well. Clearly, there was a problem. Yet scouts sent by the new Lord Dondarrion to explore the way south found no sign of the army, and there was concern. The garrison at Wyl, having entered the Marches after giving up the castle to its Dornish masters, said they had heard or seen no sign of them, either. What had happened?
Disaster. That is what befell Ser William Waxley and his forces, some seven thousand men in total, many of them vassals from the royal demenses. Having departed Yronwood almost two months ago, Ser William’s forces immediately ran into the most terrible possible circumstances: the change of the season. Any of the Marchers with him must have informed him how treacherous the pass could be at the start of Autumn, but his course had been set when it was decided that the force could not sustain the siege of Yronwood, not without reliable supplies coming down the Boneway. Torrential rain, flash floods, avalanches—every possible natural disaster that could befall the forces did.
Some died swiftly, by mishap. Others died brutally, as Dornish rebels under Red Rhys of the Scourge ambushed foraging parties, or infiltrated the pickets to murder men and loot what little supply remained. Wagons had to be abandoned, leaving men and horses more and more burdened ... until they could hardly walk, until the rate of march was a mere crawl.
And then: starvation. Within a week, the oats for the destriers were exhausted, and soon the hay. All but the toughest meat was gone, and men dreamed of having bread, or wine. And all the while, the outlaw Red Rhys continued his predations, aided some said by the witch, Alyx Sand. Men began to desert, trying to strike out on their own, only to die, their bones added to those which give the pass its name. Ser William attempted to hold things together, aided by Ser Conrad Arryn and other knights and men of note, but it was all but impossible.
And then: illness. Disease swept through the ranks, the bloody flux felling men to left and right. Some tried to continue the march, stripping off their trousers so as not to soil them, but these would eventually collapse and be left behind. Ser William, who had struggled so mightily to fulfill his duty, succumbed as well, and perhaps it was a blessing that he died swiftly, consumed by fever that swiftly placed him in a coma before the worst of the pain began.
And then: Red Rhys. Never was there a more merciless Dornishman, some will say. The robber-knight of the mountains, infamous among the Dornishmen, even more infamous in the Marches, had his forces start an avalanche that cut the vanguard of the army—already down to half its number—from the rest. The vanguard fled when they saw themselves alone, outnumbered, unable to cross the wall of stones that blocked the ravine through which they were passing. The rest of the host could not follow without removing the obstacle ... and there was no way to do this, with men so weak, with few knights yet alive. They placed their backs to the rubble, and waited to die.
They did, in the night. Villagers, soldiers, knights, robbers and rebels, broken men—almost all the men in the Red Mountains of Dorne had appeared, called forth by the news of the destruction Red Rhys and the gods had be visiting upon the Young Dragon’s ill-fated force. What followed was an orgy of violence, of wanton murder. Not a single knight was taken alive. Not a single commoner, either. Their bodies were piled up for the vultures and the sand dogs.
When next the Boneway is marched, there will be a place where scores of mounds, made all of bones, will greet passersby.
Five weeks after, straggling in afoot, three dozen men reached the first Marcher watchtower in the northern end of the Boneway. They were skeletal, haggard figures, and what they did to survive the most harrowing journey ... none can say; they surely will not. Ser Conrad Arryn was among them, whose experience in the Mountains of the Moon was chief cause of this survival, such as it was. Few could walk a step more, much less ride, and were sent on to Blackhaven on wagons, where maesters and septons would tend them, while Lord Dondarrion gathered what information he could to make his report. His brother, Ser Doran, had survived by the grace of the gods . . . but in such a state of collapse that the castle’s maester doubted he would survive despite his best efforts.
Ten thousand lives were spent in King Daeron’s glorious conquest, a feat even the Conqueror never achieved. But now the final tally has come: _forty thousand_ died in the long collapse of Daeron’s rule there, and King Daeron himself was not the least.
Prince Viserys gathered the small council to share the news. King Baelor went to Visenya’s Sept, it’s said, with tears in his eyes for so many souls sent to the gods, and he refused to leave for a day and a night, locked in prayer. Could it mean a renewed war? None think so: the disaster was before the peace in Dorne, after all. But ... it bears thinking about. For those of the king’s household who died, Ser William first and foremost, memorial services would be held by the High Septon himself.