AN: Not a huge fan of season 8. The writing is pretty disappointing, but I'm not really surprised. Episode 5 did inspire me to write this though. Hope you like it.
My lungs burned. The air was chocked with fire and soot. I watched as the world around me was cast into an inferno of chaos. Faintly, squinting my eyes, agitated by the smoke and dust, I peered through the veil of burning tears I could gleam the pillars smoke rising from between crowded streets. Great pylons marking sights of sobering desolation as the titanic monster swooped from above. Breathing the seven hells upon the blood-soaked streets bellow. Flames, licking its wicked tongues viciously at septs, homes and memories. Swallowing soldier and child alike in futile attempts to sate an unquenchable hunger.
'Be brave.' The words echoed through my mind. 'Be brave. Be brave. Be brave.' The repetition my only strength.
It seemed that in that moment the world cowered. Despite our great number, no man dared move to pick up his arms and reignite the bloodshed. Instead gawking in abject horror as thousands where turned to cinders before the eyes of their beloveds. Was this to be Westeros' saviour? The breaker of chains and freer of men. A demagogue who brought salvation through fire and purity in desolation. Would she rule nobly and wisely over her city of ashes and butchered men? Would she pry infant children from the arms of their mutilated mothers and preach to them forevermore the generous justice she has wrought upon them.
In that blistering midday heat, agitated by the wicked flames of the terrible horror of the great Khaleesi, I felt cold. For true, a freezing hand clenched its evil grip around my fragile soul squeezing from me every drop of valour and sense I ever knew. And I knew fear. Paralysing, mind rendering fear. True fear. At the terror from across the seas, that had brought with it only death and misery. That had rendered my brothers, these brave and noble Lannister men back into young boys, tearfully crying for their mother's warm embrace. Gazing upon this sinister world with large, lost eyes, unsure and incapable. The world was silent but for the distant shrieks. The cries of terror and pain. The heart wrenching sobs of the young and once innocent and the despairing wails of family no more. And for the mewling of frightened dogs, cats and rats as they dashed between the legs of soldiers. Desperately fleeing lifelong homes in panic-stricken fervour.
And for the bells. Tolling a lullaby to a dying place.
"Be brave. Be brave. Be brave." I was saying it under my breath now, I realised in a startling moment of lucidity. I wasn't supposed to say it aloud. I didn't mean to.
And then suddenly, a hateful proclamation, a primal roar echoed from the beast's men. The silence was banished. Men leaped for their thrown swords, so I did as well. There was pushing now. Shoving and desperate clamour.
What was going on?
Why had the cats and dogs and rats turned back?
What were they fleeing form?
Why was there sound of slaughter from up the street?
We have surrendered, why was there still fighting?
Why did men have to die?
I stumbled, gasping for air as the building beside me shuddered and crumbled dramatically. My once dashing armour, the very image of all my life's achievements, the monument to my sworn duty, was smothered in the remnants of a dying city. Dust and ash clinging to every available nook and greave as all my left side was showered by the cloud of decimated stone, painting it an ashen white. Fear stole my wits and I searched frantically, for something, anything that could be my lifeline. I found it in my captain. His eyes wide and vacant, aged features made ancient by the creases of horror.
"Sir, what do we do?!" I yelled as loud as I could. My once brave façade now struck utterly dead by the crack in my voice. The men where panicking, but they stilled themselves to listen. Each desperate for direction. The grizzled old veteran would know what to do. He always did.
But now lady terror had stolen his voice. The voice we all so desperately needed. The dragon roared, closer this time.
I grasped at his shoulders. Turning his eyes to mine. If it had been stolen, I would have to fight it back.
"What do we do sir!?" I asked again, panic crashing through my erratic tones. "What do we do!? What do we do!?" I all but sobbed.
An then I saw it. The sense returning to him. He grasped by shoulder hard, his eyes sharp and sure. As it always was. He knew what to do. I could leap for joy.
He opened his mouth to speak. But was silenced forever by an errant brick, scattered by the mighty wings of an ancient beast, tearing through a bell tower that had announced our now disregarded surrender. The man's knees buckled inwards. It occurred to me then, that I was now holding a corpse. In a frantic, choppy motion, I stepped back. Breath hitching, I let go of the body, allowing it to flop unceremoniously to the ground. In my shock, I bumped into the man behind me. He steadied me.
The yells were closer now, mingled with the fearful cries of hysteric innocents. I felt hot liquid surrounding my boots. Glancing down, I saw red. Deep crimson, painted with swirls of dust, creating intricate patterns as it flowed, lazily following the inconsistencies of the cobblestone road. I stared at it uncomprehendingly. Seeing but not knowing.
I raised my foot slowly, blood dripping from my boot. The sounds of slaughter where nearly upon us now. My resolve broke. Almost like a pack of wild animals, or a collective consciousness, we seemed to act as one. In reality, it was a cascading effect. Infecting all those present within the blink of an eye. First the man behind me gave in, releasing his grip on me, before running, announcing the rout. And one be one, we joined. Turning our backs and pushing against those behind us, yelling frantically to alert those behind us to run.
It was chaos. Near a slaughter in its own right. Men that stood shoulder to shoulder, packed into the street like sardines. The rout had no semblance of discipline. Those who fell where trampled. Many fell.
I ran with no direction. Blind panic driving every action as I plunged deeper into the ruined city. No mater where I turned, or how quickly I snaked through the winding back alleys, I could not escape. I could not escape the haze of dust and smoke. I could not escape the smell of burning flesh, fire and fear. And I could not escape the noise. The screaming and shrieking and sobbing and suffering.
The suffering. It was everywhere. In every eye, in every forlorn cry, in every voice. It shoved me out the way as it fled the carnage, running nowhere. It lined the streets in the form of family, friends, neighbours and strangers huddling to each other, alive or not, to assuage their terror. Comforting each other to their final, bedraggled breath. Whenever the dragon's great roar would shake the city, the people would tremble and make pathetic noises.
The sight of me, the once handsome and dashing soldier, the hero, no longer filled them with hope and admiration. Now they're eyes found me only briefly. Scattering across vistas in animalistic intent. Looking for a way out. A way out that did not exist.
My energy depleted and my options exhausted, I caved upon my misery. My knees weak, I sunk to the ground, panic bubbling at my throat as bile tickled at my tonsils. King's Landing already smelt like shit, but this was different. The stench of burning flesh hung over the city in a thick, oppressive cloud.
I shivered, my entire body shaking. I couldn't breathe. I took my helmeted head in my hands and sobbed. I wasn't alone in my disappear. Irregularly, someone would come storming through the tiny little road, bolting through the miniature plaza in a frantic rush. My only constant companions where the corpses of the trampled, the elderly couple that clung to each other in the far corner, and the young child, perhaps six or eight years old, who shook with silent sobs, fat tears spilling unheeded from large eyes. It was difficult to discern her age as she buried her face in her mother's bosom, who in turn wrapped herself around her daughter, trying to provide what reprieve she could. Peppering the sky with frightened glances.
My head lowered once more. What was I doing? I was supposed to protect these people. It was my duty. I was supposed to be a hero. I pulled my tattered cloak tighter to my shaking form. Instead, here I sat, a wreck amongst ruins as fire rained upon Kings Landing. Did it mean nothing. The promises I made to my lord. The promises I made to myself. The promises I made to my mother as she regaled me with stories of the heroes of a bygone era.
In the distance, the monster roared once more, and a fresh wave of terror crashed over the city. The world bore down upon me. I found it difficult to breathe, the winding alleyways that gave me shelter at once becoming all to small and claustrophobic.
What was I to do? As the wrath of the Seven themselves laid waste to the city. What is a man to a dragon? How could I alone stem the flow of foreigners that sacked that the crippled city. What use was I? I could do none of these things. This I know.
'Please mother, I need you. What am I to do?' I pleaded to the heavens. Yet a glance to the sky revealed only ash, the great blue sky stolen by the wicked Queen from over the sea. My terror complete, lost in a shroud of smoke and death I sought comfort from the only place it has never been denied.
My reflection was shattered by a cry of terror. Not unlike the thousand that sung in a great choir of disappear, singing their melody all across the city. But this was close. My eyes shot open. A Dothraki screamer had rode into the plaza. His curved sword painted in blood; his face contorted into a barbaric scowl. My blood boiled as I saw him raise his sword arm. Poised to do unspeakable evil. I may have no way of killing a dragon. I might not be able to save Westeros form the hungry hands of the dreaded Mad Targaryen that would surely ignite the world once more. But I can do my duty.
And I set about my duty with fiery determination. I had purpose. Reason. Passion. The clouds finally dispelled form my eyes. The world became silent but for the rush of hot blood in my ears. In the wink of a moment, I was upon him. He turned to the clamour of my armoured form, but it was too late. Taking my sword in both hands, I sliced open his belly. His innards poured over the neck of his horse. Startled, the animal began running, the screamer flopping to the side soon after.
It was with cold detachment that I noted the elderly couple was now dead. But I had no time to linger on this. Instead I turned my attention to the mother and child. I was too late I realised. The mother, for all her virtues was splayed across the sidewalk, blood pouring in generous rivers from a vicious cut that ran from shoulder to stomach. Cleaning her of the thick layer of dust and ash in a great red tide.
I shuddered at the horrors before me, the cold chill of failure coiling around my soul. There was a small sniffle, and a mewling sound like a stifled sob. Hope reignited in my soul. Frantically, yet as delicately as my shaking hands could, I moved the woman to the side. I could only breathe a cruel sigh of relief, as I moved the mother's corpse, and from bellow stared back at me the bloodshot and tear-filled eyes of the petrified young girl.
My heart went out to her. No child this young, or child at all should ever be subjected to such horror. I moved my hands to calm her, but even my slow and measured attempt sent her recoiling back, whimpering all the way. She tried to scamper up to the wall but was kept by the death grip on her mothers' arm.
"Mama!" she cried, frantically tugging at her fallen mother, hoping desperately for the woman to rise and embrace her again.
"Mama please! Mama help me!" she spoke frantically. Crying out like only a distraught child could. Her desperate tugging leaving angry red marks on her mother's pale arms.
"Everything's alright." I tried softly, even though I knew it wasn't. I doubt she heard me over the cacophony. But I tried anyway. I tried coming closer again, whispering meaningless comforts. The girl pleaded for her mother. Her attention changing completely to the woman now, as though I had disappeared.
"Get up." She shook the corpse, her voice more incoherent than before. "Please wake up." It was a heart wrenching sight. The girl gasped when I put my hand on her shoulder but did not shy away. Instead she went back to what remained of her morbid task. Pleading for the embers of life to once more ignite in her mother's belly. Her pleas became incoherent as she descended into blubbering sobs. She laid her weary head on her mother's shoulder. We sat there silently. My hand awkwardly resting on the child's shoulder as she lay with her mother's remains.
Yet the peace was killed again. Men where coming. They didn't sound like Lannister men. I had to get her to safety. Without thinking and acting decisively, I scooped her up in my arms and started to run. The girl screamed bloody murder, terrified by my intrusive action. Her little arms grasping frantically in her mother's direction. But I had no time to calm her. Surely, they knew we were here now.
So, I ran, grasping her tightly. She screamed and kicked and bit but it was futile. She could not deter my armoured form. Soon, her kicks grew weaker and her squirming grew lethargic. By the time I had barged into the nondescript storefront, her efforts had been reduced to softly weeping into my shoulder. On any other day I would have objected to a child smearing my pristine red cloak with snot, but I only held her tighter.
My eyes drank up the room before me, searching quickly for what I hoped the store might have. The Seven must have pleased me, for hidden behind the counter I found a trap door. Descending into the storage cellar, I closed the trap door behind us. It was a muddy darkness. The room lightly illuminated by the streaks of dust filled sunbeams that breached the aging floorboards and bathed the sepulchre in soft lights. I dare not ignite a lamp.
I carried her to the furthest corner of the room. It wasn't the perfect hiding place, but it would have to do. I moved to place her on the ground, but she had trapped my neck in an iron grip. I moved to pry her off, but she made the most pitiful whimpering noise when I let go, her shaking intensifying.
I sighed, my heart wrenching. I had just torn her away from the last vestiges of her family. So I granted her this small mercy. Holding her tightly, I rested my back the wall. Suddenly, I felt drowsy. The noises of battle and death had yet to reach this part of the city and even the tolling of the bells and the dragon's mighty roar was muffled down in the damp cellar. I was tired. So very tired. And yet, I could not close my eyes.
Slowly and gently, I rocked the child in my arms. Scouring my memory for the things my mother used to do when I was in distress. But that was a long time ago. So, I rubbed little circles on her back and whispered calming words. It felt like an eternity before she had spent her tears. Until she sobbed dry hiccups, for she had no more tears to give. My arms where tired and wavering, so as I felt her grip grow more lax, I lowered her gently to my lap.
I took off my helmet and placed it on the floor next to me. It was of no use here, and all it served to do is scare the child and squeeze my already pounding head. For the first time I could see her properly. So filthy and covered in ash and blood was she, that I could not tell the colour of her filthy, matted hair. Her large blue eyes stared up at me in a misty haze as her delicate featured shook. Whether it was from fear, exhaustion, despair or the chill that claimed the dark room home, I do not know. Nevertheless, I removed my once proud, now tattered red cloak, and wrapped it around her tiny shoulders.
Her eyes where unfocused, darting from corner to corner. Breath ragged and heart beating wildly as she surveyed the room with great urgency. She was terrified. I frowned silently. Even in a young man such as myself, it stirred fatherly instincts.
"What's your name, little one?" I asked in a voice I hoped was calming. It was supposed to be a deep and rich tone, but instead it escaped through barley veiled shaky breaths. Short, terse and quick. I hoped I hadn't scared her. Not that I was frightening. I had always had a boyish demeanour. The girl focused her eyes on me but said nothing. Instead, stared at me, seemingly judging my mortal soul.
It unnerved me. For a moment I was concerned. That she was resentful of me for tearing her away from her mother. That she would hate me and curse me. I would not leave her to fend for herself. But it would make the task wholly unpleasant. Once again, I had to battle an onset of tears. Her demeanour calming as I fought to maintain my veneer of confidence. I didn't have to believe we were going to be ok, but she had to.
"Layne." She said, her voice scratchy and tired from screaming. It was soft. So soft I could barely hear it through the screams above. It reminded me of a small she truly was. The beast above could surely swallow her whole. I tried to smile at her in a way that resembles friendliness.
"Everything's going to be alright little Layne. I promise." I said, forcing myself to relax deeper into the wall's stony embrace.
"But Mama…" She trailed off, her voice became thick, and she had to pause. I could feel my blood run cold. I shushed her before she could continue.
I could say nothing, so I merely squeezed her tight. My armoured form could not have been comfortable, but it was all I could offer. Why was this happening? A question it was indeed. But I am a young man. I had no answer.
The foundations rumbled as a roar was heard in the distance.
The sound of pillage was closer now. Even bellow the ground it was impossible to escape the sounds of suffering. I could feel Layne grow restless in my arms. Large eyes again darting across the poorly lit cavern. Flying over large stocks of grain stored within.
I had to distract her, I resolved as she curled further into herself. So I spoke softly, but surely. Telling a tale I had heard a thousand times. A tale close to my heart. I membered all the ways the bards had told it across my many moons. So, I regaled it to her, with as much theatre and acting a soldier could muster, the Tale of the Winged Knight, Artys Arryn, who fought giants, lead an army of birds into battle and rode a giant falcon.
The hero of the Vale, who helped the helpless and kept his subjects safe and sound. The greatest hero in the Age of Heroes.
It was very tale my mother had regaled to me that horrid day. When I was but I child, clinging to her skirts under the table, weeping not for the torrential rain that lay siege the meek Westerlands town we called home. But for the shrieks and sounds of pillage, as the savage Ironborn raped and murdered and decimated outside. They're great forms flashing past windows, eyes black as death and rotting teeth that could shred a man to bits illuminated in brilliant flashes of thunder.
The memory of my mother, torn limb from limb by evil ocean monsters as I ran like the coward I am flashed across my eyelids. But it did not bring me despair. For I remembered the blanket of comfort, like the warm glow of the hearth, her words had wrapped me in. Even in my moment of greatest tragedy, I took solace in his tales.
Even today, wielding only his legacy, Artys Arryn could slay the monsters of the mind. I had promised then. As my gangly legs pumped and carried me with great haste into the fields. Clinging desperately to my mothers' words. "Be brave." She had told me. Again, and again and again so I'd believe it. Before she sent me running, alone and hapless into the muddy nothingness.
Nothing to stay the abyss but the legacy of Artys Arryn.
'Some hero I am' I reflected. 'Bravely hiding in a cellar with a little girl.' But I did not stop. My voice filling the dusty room with grand adventures and illustrious tales. Acting out the voices, recreating scenes with my hands, playing with the eyeflaps of my helmet, imagining it to be some foul beast to be slain by the noble Arryn, and paying no heed to monsters above.
And as I paused to catch my breath, I realised.
She had fallen asleep. Head resting on my breastplate. I paused for a moment, unsure of what to do. Unwittingly, a soft smile played across my gore stained face. I wrapped my cloak tighter around her. I tried to steady my breathing. Hoping by all the fates that my steady heartbeat would inspire warm dreams. Mercifully devoid of the horrors above.
And suddenly, it was upon us. Heavy footsteps above, as savage Northmen looted the bread and money from the storefront, ruining and destroying the once proud venture. I curled myself around little Layne, so much as her mother had. Praying to every god, new and old, that she would not wake in this moment. Not to live through this terror. Heaven knows she'd lived through enough of that.
"Be brave." I whispered to her scalp. "Be brave. Be brave. Be brave." Again and again, repeating under my breath as fought my own tears.
My sword burned from its scabbard. But I dare not reach for it and disturb little Layne. I prayed, to whatever may listen, that no man would find the trap door. To keep us sheltered from the abominations the pilfered her home.
And I pleaded, by my immortal soul.
That as the ghost of bells tolled over the corpse of King's Landing, hidden deep within the bowels of the ruined city, they would find a young Lannister sword shielding a filthy little girl. And take mercy upon their beleaguered souls.