The Stepstones are a chain of about a dozen or so islands located east of Dorne and just west of the coast of Essos (in particular, the region known as the Disputed Lands).
They are infamously filled with pirate dens, an uncontrollable border-zone periodically fought over by different Free Cities and even the Seven Kingdoms but not really controlled by anyone. Pirates, sellsails, and sellswords that infest the Stepstones prey on merchant shipping that passes through them into and out of the Narrow Sea.
According to myth, Westeros and Essos were once joined by a great land-bridge - known as the Arm of Dorne - across which the First Men invaded Westeros. The Children of the Forest destroyed the land-bridge with magic more than ten thousand years ago, leaving behind only the shattered islands as evidence of its passing. In the present day, the Stepstones mark the border between the Narrow Sea to the north and the Summer Sea to the south. The Free City of Tyrosh is located on the northeastern-most island in the chain.
In the books
In the A Song of Ice and Fire novels, two of the islands in the Stepstones chain have been named so far: Bloodstone and Grey Gallows. Bloodstone is the largest, and the westernmost, located closest to Dorne. Grey Gallows is located south of Bloodstone.
The Free city Tyrosh itself is located on the easternmost and northernmost of the Stepstones - though it is usually not considered when generally speaking about "the Stepstones" as a border zone filled with pirate dens, given that Tyrosh is a strong and self-reliant city-state controlling large amounts of territory on the mainland.
Attempts by both the Seven Kingdoms and the Free Cities to conquer all of the Stepstones have failed. Apart from the fact that rival Free Cities are always competing over them, the local pirates and outlaws consistently resist any attempts made to impose outside rule. The Stepstones are predominantly lawless pirate-dens, but all sea shipping to the northern Free Cities (Myr, Pentos, Lorath, and particularly Braavos) has to pass through them. Shipping from nearby Lys, and even to an extent from Volantis, is also sometimes in danger of attacks from the pirates of the Steptones.
Periodically the pirates in the Stepstones grow to such numbers that fleets from Westeros and the Free Cities gather in major campaigns to wipe them out, but new pirates always replace them eventually.
Occasionally, pirates from the Stepstones have even invaded the east coasts of Westeros in large numbers. During the Targaryen Conquest, pirates from the Stepstones used the distraction of Aegon the Conqueror and his dragons landing to the north to invade Cape Wrath in the east of the Stormlands (though the Targaryens themselves drove them out before too long). During the reign of King Jaehaerys I Targaryen over two hundred years ago, Myrish pirates from the Stepstones even seized and held the eastern half of Tarth island, northeast of Cape Wrath and a considerable distance away from the Stepstones themselves. The Targaryens cleared them out easily enough with their dragons, but Jaehaerys I's eldest son Prince Aegon ended up dying in the battle nonetheless.
Prince Daemon Targaryen briefly conquered most of the Stepstones using his dragon Caraxes and an army of sellswords and adventure-seekers, and established his own Kingdom of the Stepstones - his own proxy-kingdom nominally independent from but allied with the Iron Throne. In truth it was never really a functional realm in its own right so much as it was whichever islands his sellsword army happened to control at a given time. He played at war like this for several years but later abandoned the Stepstones altogether, which collapsed back into pirate control not long afterwards.
The Stepstones were conquered by Maelys the Monstrous, one of the Blackfyre Pretenders, in the War of the Ninepenny Kings, as a staging area for an invasion of Westeros. King Jaehaerys II sent an army to destroy his forces before they were ready, and Maelys Blackfyre was killed in battle by Ser Barristan Selmy.
A Storm of Swords
Fighting has broken out in the Stepstones.
Ser Osmund Kettleblack tells Ser Jaime Lannister he served in the Stepstones and the Disputed Lands with the Gallant Men, fighting for Lys and then Tyrosh.
A Feast for Crows
While sailing from Braavos to Oldtown, the crew of the Cinnamon Wind defends against pirates in the Stepstones. A Volantene galley barely escapes Salladhor Saan's Old Mother's Son and Valyrian.
After Cersei Lannister is arrested by the Faith of the Seven, Lord Aurane Waters absconds with Cersei's dromonds. Grand Maester Pycelle believes that Aurane intends to become a pirate in the Stepstones.
A Dance with Dragons
Ser Davos Seaworth recalls that Salladhor abandoned the cause of Stannis Baratheon with the intent to return to the Stepstones with his remaining ships.
Some of the Golden Company lands on the Stepstones.
The Iron Fleet, headed to Slaver's Bay, stops for game, grain, and fresh water in the Stepstones before Victarion Greyjoy splits the fleet in three.
Strange ships are reported in the Stepstones.
Arya Stark learns that Pynto claims to have once been the most notorious pirate of the Stepstones.
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