The only thing colder than the dim tower room was the fear wrapping strangler's fingers around her heart, as she sat back on her heels and cursed aloud as at least her dozenth attempt to kindle a fire died a sooty, ignominious death in the hearth. She did not understand; there was tinder and flint enough, she should have had a merry blaze crackling. But no matter what she tried, she could not, and she was almost in tears with frantic panic. So cold, why is it so cold? Her breath was visible in the air, and hoarfrost clung to the torch bracket and the casement of the window, blurring the lead-glass diamonds that gazed out over the courtyard of the Red Keep. Guard my interests at court, Lady Sansa had said before departing for Highgarden, and yet Brienne was still here in this dank little chamber, scraping her fingers raw and bleeding with futility.
She shot an apprehensive glance at the bed in the corner. Jaime lay as still as a corpse, draped in all the blankets and quilts she could scavenge up, eyes closed. Only the faintest rise and fall of his chest gave any sign that he was still tenuously clinging to life, and after watching all these frail sparks snuffed, she could not help but fear that his was next. She did not know what to do. She had been the knight of the stories, on the brave quest to save the maiden and fight monsters and win her honor, whilst Jaime had been the princess, locked in a tower by some evil sorcerer and needing her to rescue him. Should she kiss him, perhaps? That was what the knight always did, before sweeping the princess onto his white destrier and galloping off into the sunset, but Brienne doubted it would be of much use in the present situation. No, she should try to start the fire again, keep him as warm as she could, while she went back and informed Aegon of what they had left behind in the north. Or did he already know? Would he dispatch his dragons to assist? Strange to so desperately trust in an eighteen-year-old stripling, but he had said that he must be a king, he must save the realm, he had pardoned Jaime, he'd do what he had to. He must.
Brienne's thirteenth attempt to start the fire, however, met with the same dismal failure as its predecessors, and she threw down the flint with a roar of frustration. Failure. Always a failure. Even in this, this one simple thing. She herself was starting to shiver, even in her wool and leather, and could not think of how else to make it warm, struggled to remember what heat and summer even felt like. So was this it, the long and terrible winter the maesters had always predicted, which might stretch on beyond the lifetime or lifetimes of men? So cold. So very, very –
It was the weakest, rasping, gargled word, but it went down Brienne's back like a bolt of lightning. Choking on a gasp, she whirled around.
A slit of emerald green was watching her from the bed, almost lost among the bruises. It seemed to be taking all his effort even to do that, fluttering half-shut, but by that time she had crossed the room in a single bound and knelt at his side. "Jaime? Are you there? Jaime?"
He looked as if he could not be entirely sure. There was no particular expression on his face, not grief or relief or joy or pain, but an utter, all-consuming emptiness. His gaze seemed to be looking straight through the ceiling at something else altogether, as if he himself would not mind joining it. But she reached out, fumbled for his hand and held it hard, and he turned his head with a pained, bewildered air. "Am I. . . am I dead? I must be. That's the only reason you'd be here. I'm sorry. Brienne. I'm sorry."
"No." She bit her lip. "You're alive. Believe me, you are."
Jaime's mouth twisted. If he did in fact believe her, it was plain that this was not what he had wanted to hear. She thought of the guards reporting that they had found him in the Dragonpit when they had gone to confine Aegon's beasts there – him, a great cache of wildfire, a dead alchemist, and the strangled body of Queen Cersei. Was that – had he – ? No matter how much love had turned to loathing between the Lannister twins by the end, Brienne could not imagine that this would do anything but what it had done: destroy Jaime as well as Cersei. They came into the world together, two halves of one soul. They must have meant to die the same way. How could he even begin to understand how to breathe, to walk around, to exist, as half a torn-apart creature? But he has to. He has to. It was Jaime she loved. Not as part of some other chimerical monster, some two-headed hydra, but Jaime himself, Jaime alone, the Jaime she knew, the man. And it was Jaime she was going to save.
Just then, as if following her thought, Jaime's fingers tightened on hers. With a supreme effort of will, he managed, "Tommen?"
"I – he – " Brienne could not face the prospect of telling him that Tommen was dead as well, that a Targaryen king had seized the city and the throne, and that he himself had been stripped of the white cloak and, if he recovered, was faced with the prospect of being carted home to Casterly Rock as a crippled pensioner in disgrace, that everything he had ever fought or suffered for was gone. "I – I don't know. Jaime, you need – need to rest. Save your – "
His eyes flicked at her, and for a moment she almost did not recognize him, lost behind the gilded, ruined mask. "You're lying to me, wench."
"No – Jaime, I – "
"WHERE?" he roared, so that it echoed madly in the small stone room, taking so much of his strength that he collapsed back on the pillows, gasping, blood flecking his mouth. He curled onto his side and began to cough, dry-retching, as Brienne did her best to hold him steady. More blood came up, bright red and frothy, and she knew at once that was not a good omen. She felt utterly useless, just herself and her two bare hands, without a fire or the sweetness of a lie to comfort him, stroking his hair until at last the hacking stopped, and he lay sprawled, face half-buried, breathing rasping and tormented. "Go," he said, muffled. "Go away. I'm going to die, I'd damn well like to die, and I don't want you to see it."
Brienne could not summon up the barest notion of a reply, except for instinctive, immediate, complete refusal. He might be as stubborn as the wrong end of several horses, but so was she. "You don't get to tell me what to do, Kingslayer. Live, or I'll throttle you."
His shoulders shook with the ghost of an agonized laugh. Then while they were still staring at each other combatively, waiting to see who would be the first to blink, there was a sharp rap on the chamber door.
"Oh, good," said Jaime. "I hope it's the silent sisters."
"Shut up." Brienne rose to her feet and crossed to it, pulling it open a crack with one hand and keeping the other on her sword. If it was someone meaning him harm, she doubted that they would have bothered to knock; besides, Jaime's life was already in such fragile estate that some lone-wolf Targaryen loyalist, seeking retribution for Aerys' murder despite the pardon granted by the king, only had to sit back and wait for him to expire without incriminating themselves in the least. But she would take no chances.
It was not some masked assassin or righteous avenger. It was a tall, spare-fleshed, clean-shaven man with hair pulled back in a knot and cool grey eyes, who took note of her tense defensive posture, raised an eyebrow, and sketched an eminently correct bow. "My lady," he said. "I am Haldon, called Halfmaester, in service of His Grace. He has sent me to see to Ser Jaime's wounds."
Brienne blinked. "You would – the king would truly have him cared for, as well as pardoned?" she said warily. "That is. . . that is kind."
"It is not kindness." Haldon looked amused at her naïveté. "Lady Sansa did request that Ser Sandor and Ser Jaime be saved, and once she is wed to Willas Tyrell, they shall stitch north and south together. It would be a boon to add the west as well. King Aegon sees far more advantage in living allies, rather than dead enemies. So, surely you will allow me to do what I have come for?"
Flushing, Brienne hesitated a heartbeat longer. Then she stepped aside, though not taking her eyes off him an instant, as he proceeded toward the invalid in the bed. Jaime himself, however, looked far more uncooperative. "Wait just a bloody minute," he growled. "King Aegon? What in the name of – where is Tommen?"
"They have not ceased to look for him, my lord." Haldon's lie, unlike Brienne's, sounded smoothly practiced. "If he is found, he shall be brought here to you. We are well aware that King Tommen is only a boy, and despite the crimes of his family, deserves no share in their guilt."
"Merciful of you." Jaime's tone was half suspicious, half surprised. "Well, if you're now in the business of saving Lannisters, rather than killing them, how about lighting me a damned fire?"
Brienne's flush deepened, and she was about to say something when she was brought up short by the queer look on Haldon's face. "I would if I could, my lord," he said, "but something strange has befallen the castle in these last hours. The fires are simply going out. From the meanest cookfire to the torches in the throne room to the beacons that burn over Blackwater Bay. And when they do, they cannot be kindled again."
Jaime raised an eyebrow. "I saw a pair of dragons, or was that a hallucination as well? Leaving aside the question of how the devil your boy Aegon managed to procure them, it seems exactly the sort of problem they would be suited to assist with."
Brienne saw in her mind's eye Randyll Tarly turning into a column of flame, as death swept down on dark wings, and shuddered. It was due to them being taken to the Dragonpit that Jaime had been found at all, of course, so she could not judge too harshly, but the reality of their presence was not one to judge lightly. "How did he?" she pressed, echoing Jaime's question. "Find them? Surely there were not more eggs?"
"At Dragonstone." Haldon looked reluctant, but answered nonetheless. "Lord Connington and Lord Varys nobly sacrificed themselves to wake the stone beasts. I suspect that is why His Grace can control them, that they share in something of the animating spirit and intelligence of the men who died to give them life. If so, then perhaps he can try to – "
This stirring eulogy was unceremoniously interrupted with a grampus snort from Jaime. "Seven hells, are you bloody serious? Varys sacrificed himself? Somehow I greatly doubt that. And I'd rather freeze my own balls off than trust him or any relict of him to pop by and warm my toes. As for Lord Connington, I suspect he feels the same. But why, then, are all the fires going out?"
"We would delight in knowing the answer to that, my lord." Haldon had begun pulling things out of his capacious sleeves, bending to his work. "To say the least, it is not usual. And this. . . cold."
"They're coming," Brienne blurted out. "The. . . them. The blue-eyed ones. The Wall is fallen. They're coming."
"His Grace is aware of the stakes of this struggle." Haldon's expression did not alter. "That was in part why Lord Connington and Lord Varys made the choice that they did. He knows it is not merely men to fight, nor simply a matter of crowns and politics. Tell me what you have heard."
Brienne did, filling his ear with everything they had learned of the Others and the wights in the north, that Lady Sansa had sent the Burned Men to fight at White Harbor, that the Wall was down and the Night's Watch all but spent – that part Haldon seemed to know already, nodding as he worked on Jaime, who periodically uttered hair-raising oaths against them and demanded they leave him in peace to die, which in turn they both ignored. Brienne was heartened to see that; for him to have enough spirit to argue and complain was far preferable to the dead-eyed, passionless, empty look on his face when he had first woken. But she could not forget that it was fed on lies, that a fragile web of falsehood was the only thing preventing him from plunging back over the edge to the bottom. He looked like Jaime, he sounded like Jaime, but she had no way of knowing who had gone into that final confrontation with Cersei, and what had come out.
Against a passion such as that, twisted and dark and damning though it had been, what good was her plain, simple, ordinary love? She'd never said, not aloud. Neither had he – if he even felt remotely the same. The Quiet Isle was never supposed to have happened, and nor could she tell him what had resulted from it. Everything felt as cold and dun and fragile as the grey snow whispering at the windows, the way her fingers ached with how hard Jaime was gripping them, the cords in his neck standing out as he struggled not to scream; the bruised, starved, bloodied, filthy flesh revealed by Haldon's ministrations was so hideous as to be almost gruesomely beautiful. Brienne longed to take the wounds on herself, would have given anything to bear them in his stead. But they fought through it somehow, together, their individual stubbornness made truly exceptional by their combined efforts, until Haldon was finished, and rose to his feet. "I will see if a brazier can be found, my lord. Is there aught else you require?"
Jaime's flat green gaze said quite clearly that there were any number of things he bloody well required, but saw less than no point in asking for. He emitted an indeterminate grunt, turned away, and tidily threw up over the side of the bed.
Haldon inclined his head to Brienne rather pointedly and turned to go; whatever care he was obligated to provide to the Kingslayer evidently did not include mopping up his sick. She got a rag and then to all fours to do so, only to resurface and see Jaime watching her intently, almost feverishly. "Brienne," he murmured. "Seven hells, don't."
"I – I don't want you to – "
"You're not my nursemaid." His head fell back on the pillow like an aged lion's, the tawny, unruly golden mane well flecked with grey, the rest of him looking as if he had been carved of marble. He was quiet for so long that a sudden fear began to rise in her chest again, when he finally said, "Sansa?"
"She's – she's safe. I found her. As Haldon said, she's going to Highgarden now, to wed Willas Tyrell." Brienne's eyes prickled with tears. "Jaime, I'm so sorry. I lost Oathkeeper. In White Harbor, the Manderlys had me prisoner, they took it. I'm sorry."
"It's just – a bloody – sword." Jaime coughed. "And it was never mine to give, it was always Ned Stark's. It's gone back to the north, then. I'm sure they'll have good use for it."
"I – I suppose." Brienne's hand hovered timidly, unsure whether to grasp back at his. "Jaime – "
He sighed raggedly, interrupting her. "One thing. Don't lie to me. What in the blazes is the new king – " he spoke the two short words with a cool, bitter irony it seemed impossible to fit into them – "actually planning to do with me?"
Brienne hesitated. "You've been stripped of the white cloak. You're to be sent home with a pardon and a pension, if you agree to keep his peace. To Casterly Rock."
"Gods, no." Jaime's face twisted in disgust. "No. No! I don't bloody want to go back there! Trapped in that place with their shades forever – no! A little bird told me it had been besieged by our noble monarch's forces, besides. Leave it. My lord father can haunt it all he likes. Assuming I live, which is a debtor's wager, then. . ."
"Then?" Brienne prompted, when he had again fallen silent. "Then what?"
His eyes met hers. "Take me to Tarth. Give me some land and a holdfast somewhere, and a window that looks over the sea. I'll send my taxes to Evenfall Hall and keep your peace and suffer the tedious complaints of your smallfolk. Though what is there even to quarrel about on that backwater anyway? Who stole whose sheep?"
Brienne's chest felt as if it was about to explode. "Jaime," she began, and stopped. "Jaime, if you want to live on Tarth – "
"I don't particularly want to live anywhere. But Tarth is the least heinous of the options, and if they find Tommen. . . it would be the best place for him. I'm done with lies. He'll live with me, as my son, and when he comes of age, he'll have the Rock if he wants it."
She couldn't breathe. Couldn't speak. But he had asked her not to lie, and now, here, she could not. Without a word, she reached out and took his hand.
Jaime's brow furrowed in momentary confusion, but it took him no longer than that to understand. He made some faint, involuntary noise, then turned his head and stared at the wall, utterly silent. She bit her tongue; there were no words of comfort she could offer. Tommen had been nephew, king, and son in different parts, and it was impossible to say how he felt the loss in each, but the boy had also been the last remnant of his house, the only thing he felt was worth fighting for. "Somehow," he said, still staring at the wall, "I was fool enough to hope otherwise. I won't make that mistake again."
Brienne remained hunched by his side, their cold fingers knitted. At last she said softly, "It wasn't your fault."
"I don't want your absolution, wench."
"I know." She did, though. Wanted his absolution, and more, her own. The difficulty of forgiving others paled before the difficulty of forgiving oneself. I killed my child too, she wanted to tell him. I understand. And worse, had no choice, no chance, no idea how she ever could have done differently than she had. It was the only way. But it did not make the grief any less.
"Brienne," Jaime said, when the silence had grown old again. "You should go. Somewhere useful. There's not much to be had here. Measure the new hangings for the throne room. Help the Targaryen boy try on his crown, if he's wiped Tommen's blood off it first. Anything that doesn't – "
She met his gaze. "Do you want me to?"
He hesitated, didn't answer. But then in that moment, when she was convinced that they were both about to speak or shatter, a shadow swept over the window, vast and dark as if an eclipse had come unlooked-for; the Citadel kept detailed star-charts and would often let it be known when one was expected, but such was not the case now. It was moving swiftly, cast by some creature – no man, no common beast, and sudden intuition pricked the back of Brienne's neck. Letting go of Jaime's hand, she got up and hurried to the window, just in time to see something truly monstrous cruising over the parapets of the Red Keep.
Cold recognition went through her like a blow. A dragon, but not one of Aegon's. Thrice the size at least, scales black as jet, eyes red in its massive, evilly triangular skull, sending downdrafts of steaming snow whirling with every effortless, lazy beat of its leathery wings. Brienne could almost feel it, even through the heavy stone and mortar of the castle walls, pulsing like a mighty furnace. This is no mummer's dragon, she knew at once. It's one of hers. The queen's. Of the rumored three that the Mad King's daughter had hatched across the narrow sea – but what was it possibly doing –
"Brienne?" Jaime said from the bed. "Brienne, what is it?"
She turned slowly, still mesmerized by its lethal beauty as it glided out of sight over the next tower, great columns of smoke purling from its nostrils and vanishing into the fog. "It's a. . ." Her own voice sounded strange and thin to her own ears. "Jaime, it's a dragon."
Something passed over his face like a stone skipped across a pond, too swiftly to judge what. "I thought Haldon said that Aegon had two."
"It's – it's not one of them. I've never seen it before. The queen. I think she's here."
At that Jaime actually laughed out loud. "And if so, to do what? Politely take tea with her best-beloved nephew? Knowing the Targaryens, I very much doubt it."
"But they must." Brienne had never been so certain of anything. "There can't be a new Dance of the Dragons. If they're fighting for the throne when what's coming is worse – they must work together, they must send their dragons against the white walkers – "
"Once they're through incinerating King's Landing, I'm sure they'll get around to it." It would have been impossible for Jaime Lannister to sound more bitter and broken.
"No." The seed of a reckless, futile, desperate plan was taking shape in Brienne's head. She stood straight, pulled her sword belt tighter, threw her cloak back over her shoulder. Did not know if she could stand to meet his eyes, did not know if she could stand not to. At last she did, and blue and green locked and held fast. "Goodbye, Ser Jaime," she told him. Could barely get it from her throat. Knew then that she would never see him again, and could not live the rest of her life, however scant it might be, knowing that this at least had gone unsaid. "I love you."
And with that, not waiting for his reaction, not looking back, she opened the door and stepped through, then shut it, leaning against it, swallowing the racking sobs that wanted to come racing up her chest. Shook silently, fought against every instinct that wanted to go back inside, crawl into bed with him, curl up and hold him tightly and wait for the end together, and began to walk.
She could barely see where she was going through the haze of tears, and was not over-familiar with the Red Keep in the first place; it was a struggle to find her way back from the remote tower room to the main castle, but she did. Quickened her pace as she began to hear voices, a muted babel of alarm, glanced out one of the high vaulted windows just in time to see an equally immense cream-and-gold silhouette soaring by. Two dragons, she has brought two at least. Gods knew where the third one might be, or what would come of it, but it was indisputable.
There was no one to block her way, and Brienne shoved aside a final door and dodged into the throne room. King Aegon was standing on the steps before the Iron Throne, with a young woman with the look of Dorne at his side – Princess Arianne, perhaps? A few men-at-arms in Martell and Targaryen colors had their hands nervously on their swords, but not yet drawn, waiting in an air of tense expectation. All attention was fixed on the great doors grinding back over the floorstones – once deeply polished to a mirrored sheen, but now dirty and scuffed with the constant passage of tramping boots – and the small party making, at long last, its entrance.
At the front must be the queen herself. She had the silver-gold hair and purple eyes of a true Targaryen, enough to give Brienne a turn; she had only ever seen illuminations of the dragon kings in books, and even Aegon did not quite match this strange young woman's eerie luster. She walked slowly, supported on both sides by a pair of young Dothraki warriors, two handmaids of the same people trailing behind. Then there was a squat old man, bald and immensely strong-looking, in the tattered robes of a maester, and a terrifying black specter in iron armor blazoned with the golden kraken of House Greyjoy. An escort of two dozen soldiers in spiked bronze caps. And then as well, with a dark-haired girl creeping after him –
The Imp. Brienne was utterly certain of it; it could be no one else. He was ragged, filthy, grown a scruff of mangy beard that had done little to improve his hideously scarred face, which wore an expression as if he was proceeding headfirst into the mouth of the deepest hell. He must have never expected to return here again, after he fled as kingslayer and kinslayer. Now there are two in the family. Tyrion Lannister gazed nowhere else than directly ahead, matching the queen's deliberate steps as best he could on stunted legs, as the party advanced in utter, trancelike silence down the length of the throne room and the reckoning that waited at the end of it. And now, Brienne thought with that same queer and complete clarity, we learn if we should live or die.
Daenerys was the first to reach the dais, tilting her head back coolly to regard her counterpart. Her voice echoed among the empty pillars when she spoke. "Are you the boy that calls himself Aegon Targaryen?"
"I. . . am." The young king was pale as a ghost himself, but managed to sound reasonably steady. "And you then would be Queen Daenerys, my. . . my kinswoman. I see that you number my lord of Lannister among your company?"
The Imp inclined his head, though the gesture fell well short of humble. "My prince. Where is Lord Connington?"
"He is dead." Aegon's lips trembled. "At Dragonstone. The circumstances were regrettable, but his sacrifice has offered – "
"Dragonstone?" interrupted the queen's maester, moving forward abruptly. "So it was you, then, that worked the sorcery? That broke the balance, that woke fire and summoned ice? We have just come from there in terrible haste, barely ahead of what we found there. The entire world of the living is in peril. The enemy is here."
Aegon's jaw sagged. "I don't – "
"Others, boy." The maester's face was utterly grim. "They've woken, they're coming. It is too late to take back what you have done. Our only chance is to fight."
Aegon still looked blindsided; if his royal dignity had been injured by being referred to as "boy"; it was impossible to say. "Varys," he stammered. "Varys said it was the only way – the sacrifices – the crown, the weal of the realm – what we had to for the Seven Kingdoms and the throne – "
"You misunderstand." It was Daenerys who spoke again this time, a mirthless smile turning up her lip, so that she looked far older than the sixteen or seventeen years she must have. "I have not come to claim the Iron Throne. I have come to destroy it."
The young king could not even feign comprehension of that, and Daenerys ruthlessly continued. "It is made of swords, swords forged in dragonfire, swords still sharp enough to kill, swords raised against an invasion of a very different sort. You spoke of sacrifices. So do I. I have brought men, almost five thousand, Dothraki and Unsullied and ironborn, and my two dragons, Drogon and Viserion. You may aid me, my lord, or get out of my way."
"I – I have dragons of my own." Aegon was clearly not quite ready to concede just yet. "That was what I woke at Dragonstone. If what you say is true – "
"It is." The queen spoke simply. "You will place them at my command, then, and remove yourself somewhere you shall not hinder the effort." Her eyes traveled lingeringly over him, clearly taking in the bandaged face, the blood seeping into his collar, the general fragility. "If any of us survive, we will arrive at further accommodations then. My lord."
Aegon took a step. "Wait – you can't – "
A step was as far as he got. Daenerys closed her eyes and rose on her toes, as if throwing herself out along an invisible line, and Brienne had a split second to wonder what was happening before the great window, high on the back wall, went dark. Then there was an unearthly roar of breaking glass as colored shards rained everywhere, a blast of frigid air snuffed the last few torches that had managed to cling to an ember, and the black dragon thrust head and shoulders through the jagged opening and everyone except Daenerys herself broke for cover. Stone-calm, the queen indicated the Iron Throne, hunched and massive on its marble plinth. Uttered something, one word, in a foreign tongue – Valyrian, perhaps.
The next moment, the room well-nigh blew apart. Brienne flung herself flat as a scalding gust blasted overhead, breaking the other windows, as the dragon bathed the throne in bursts of red-and-black flame, the deep cold of the outside air battling the heat, her ears popping and her chest seared from the inside out. Through the glare, she saw the two dozen soldiers in spiked helmets striding in; they were wearing heavy, fireproof leather tabards and gauntlets, and began to pull the red-hot blades apart. The throne writhed and swayed, a great black beast in its death throes, burning like a fiery heart, until Brienne thought suddenly of Lord Stannis and his banners and his red woman and her flames, and of a shadow cutting through King Renly's green-enameled gorget like cheesecloth and blood and torches and screaming and Catelyn Stark pulling her away, away, away. She had already given up her vengeance against Stannis in White Harbor, when Ser Davos had saved her, but for a blurry dizzy moment she was back in that tent, and past and future collided terrifyingly on her from either side.
Then she blinked hard, forcing reality back to her seared eyes, and watched as the soldiers – neither Dothraki nor ironborn, Unsullied? – continued the methodical, merciless dismantling. It took less time than she thought. The legacy of Aegon the Conqueror, forged at the end of his battle, unmade by his descendant on the eve of quite a different one. The reek of hot metal scented the room as the Unsullied hammered apart the twisted blades, laying them out in rows on the flagstones, still soft and lambent, burning with molten glow in the fullers. The throne itself was scarce more than a skeleton now, like the bones of a body left after the funeral pyre had dwindled to ashes. Snow was blowing through the broken window, hissing and steaming as it struck the inferno. Its work complete, the black dragon withdrew with a clatter of falling stonework and flapped off, shrieking.
Brienne had been transfixed the entire time, held in thrall by the spectacle. As the Unsullied began to cool and temper the blades, Daenerys turned to the likewise watching, likewise dumbstruck Aegon and asked coolly, "Where are these dragons of yours, my lord?"
It took him several moments to find his tongue. "In the – in the Dragonpit, but – "
"Good." The queen turned on her heel. "I shall fly there and fetch them directly. My lord of Greyjoy – " this to the iron captain – "return to the fleet. Muster them as the first line of the city's defense. Blackwater Bay is freezing over. The enemy comes by sea."
The captain inclined his head stiffly and turned to go. As Daenerys made to follow him out, evidently to fetch her dragon and be off on her errand, one of the young Dothraki caught her arm. "Khaleesi, are you strong enough to fly alone?"
Daenerys hesitated fractionally. "Aye. Blood of my blood, go with Rakharo and see that Mago is prepared with his khalasar. Grey Worm – " to the leader of the Unsullied – "see to it that the swords reach every man who can wield one. Marwyn – " this to the bald maester – "is it true that the Others will be here by nightfall?"
"Beyond a doubt, Your Grace."
"Do what must be done, then. Whatever spells or workings might slow them, you have my permission. Go."
The maester bowed and took his leave. Everyone else was hurrying off to carry out the tasks entrusted to them, in the focused pre-battle intensity that Brienne knew well. Only now the Martell and Targaryen men who had been guarding Aegon were coming forward to accept the swords from the throne, Aegon himself was giving orders for them to post around the keep or go to fight in the city as they would, and for one odd, giddy instant, Brienne realized that it did not matter what sigil a man wore on his breast, what House he pledged allegiance to, but that they must draw together to face something far worse, something the enemy of them all. I can as well. I must. She stepped down into the line for the swords. When one was handed to her, it still felt warm in her grasp, with the lingering power of its reforging. That is why all the fires are going out. The closer the Others get, the stronger the ice becomes. Only this can survive. Only dragonfire.
She had some notion of going down to the city walls with the rest of the armies; if the Others breached the Red Keep itself, it was too late for everyone and everything. But even as she thought it, she knew she could not. She would stay here, fight here, die if she must. Gave fervent thanks that Lady Sansa was safely away to Highgarden, but if the creeping white tide was not halted here, Highgarden – and every other refuge of men and women in Westeros – was the next to fall. Safety was only an illusion, an –
And then, her eyes caught the Imp's from across the room. He must know of her by repute, as she knew of him, and indeed she saw him stiffen as if struck. Then after a moment of indecision, pulling the girl at his side along with him, he moved forward. "Lady Brienne," he said, raising his voice over the clamor. "If you would do me a service?"
Brienne regarded him warily. Did he want to know where Sansa was, thinking to reclaim his wife and her birthright? Or perhaps Jaime, for something worse? "Aye?"
"This is Penny." The dwarf gave the girl a half-brusque, half-gentle push forward. "Take her to some spare closet – as you will notice, she's small and won't take up much room – and make sure she stays out of the way if the rest of us should happen to be horribly killed." He shrugged, clearly trying to act as if it was only mildly of concern to him. "I'd do it, but I can't stand to see a single wretched bit of this godsforsaken place again, so I'm afraid the task falls to you."
Brienne had not expected that. She eyed him narrowly, but the Imp determinedly looked away. "Besides," he said. "I might be no warrior, but I'm not hiding under a bed. Quite frankly, I'd just as well drink my way through it, but I'll nobly refrain from that as well. At least the blue-eyed bastards will have to work if they want to kill me."
And with that, he turned and stumped off, not looking back, leaving Penny blinking bewilderedly up at Brienne. "My – my lady?"
"Come with me," Brienne said tersely. It was not the charge she had wanted or expected, but she could not leave the girl by herself in the middle of this. She already knew what she had to do, and could not think on it. She shepherded Penny out through the growing crowds, into the corridors, and, faced with the prospect of the long and winding serpentine stair, bent to lift the dwarf girl onto her back. The exertion burned in her legs and lungs as she climbed, the air feeling colder and colder the further away from the throne room they got. Until they finally reached the top, she put Penny down, and strode along the hall to the end. What am I going to say? Not long ago, she had steeled herself to never see Jaime again, and now –
Her hands were unwarrantedly clumsy, shaking, as she pushed the door open, into the dim tower room. He was going to – he was –
He wasn't there.
The shock punched her like a physical blow, rocking her back on her heels. She thought she was seeing things; she blinked hard, but it remained. The bed was disordered, empty. There was nowhere else in the small tower room he could be, and she stared madly at the window, wondering if he had somehow crawled or jumped out of it – but he could not have gone that way either, he could only have left by the door. On his own, or because someone or something had come for him? Her brain whirled madly, concluding nothing. Gods, what happened?
"My lady?" Penny ventured. "Am I to stay here?"
"You – yes." Brienne pushed the girl gently past her and into the chilly, dim chamber, knowing it was little and less of a refuge, trying to assuage her guilt. I am not responsible for her, I cannot save her. She too needed to return and fight. "Someone will come and fetch you when it's safe." It tasted sourly of a lie. If anyone lives.
Penny nodded, looking nervous but resolute, and Brienne shut the door and turned away, retracing her footsteps down the corridor, trying to settle her head. She had been prepared to face her death, or what might well be it, with the knowledge that she had told Jaime what she must, and that he was safely left behind, away from it. Now both of those were uncertain, unbalanced, no longer something for her to find solace in. She descended the stairs almost at a run. He couldn't have gone far. A badly wounded cripple, and notorious with it. Did he have a death wish? If Daenerys Targaryen was not inclined to be as forgiving as Aegon with the man who had killed her father – she might not stop to attend to such trivialities now, but later –
Brienne felt sick as she reached the bottom of the stairs. It was getting very dark; a heavy twilight suffused the dim, unlit corridors, casting thick shadows. The throne room was almost empty, everyone gone to where they had chosen to make their stand. She closed her hand around the hilt of her old-new sword; it was still warm, burning steadily with an inner heat. She wondered who it had belonged to, three hundred years ago, which of the Conqueror's foes had thrown it down on the Field of Fire. It was only then that Rock and Reach bent the knee. A Lannister's blade, perhaps, or a Tyrell's. Now hers. The world felt strange, like an old dream that had not entirely fled on waking.
She crossed the floor, pushed open the heavy oaken doors, and emerged out onto the ramparts. King's Landing lay below, as always, but a King's Landing that she had never seen. It was completely dark, no lights burning in any alley or window or wynd, smothered in low-lying mist, and out to sea, as Daenerys had said, Blackwater Bay was a sheet of solid ice. A dozen or so black silhouettes of ships could just be made out, and she heard, distant and far above, the screeching cry of dragons. They are all we have.
Brienne went to the wall and peered over. Nothing. Should she unsheathe her sword now? The sky was black as ink, but there were no stars or moon, and she had to wonder if any of them would see the sun again. She was not frightened of dying, not really. If it was pain, she could stand that. It was only the losing time she feared. The not knowing. Of whether it would mean anything, or if it was utterly and simply the end.
She took a deep breath, steadying herself. There was a chance for victory. However small, it was there. They had four dragons, a Greyjoy fleet, Martell and Targaryen men, a Dothraki khalasar, a maester and mage, and countless flaming swords – a motley confederation, unimaginable in any other circumstances but these, differences put aside to fight together. And if we do win, likely we will fall at one another's throats again. Though that was a problem she would quite like to –
"Seven hells. There you are. At last."
For a mad instant, Brienne was certain she was dreaming. Then she was spinning around, staring, as Jaime limped toward her, wrapped in a ragged white cloak, his dirty golden hair bare in the winter wind, holding one of the swords from the Iron Throne in his left hand. He could barely stand up, but kept on until he reached her, leaning heavily on the crenel and wincing. "Lovely night. . . for the apocalypse. . . wouldn't you say?"
"You're not – " She couldn't even finish the sentence. "You're not supposed – "
Jaime coughed, splattering blood on the stones. "I'm not dying in bed. I'm not dying as the dragon bastards want me to, stripped and shamed. I'm not dying with Cersei." He looked her dead in the eye. "I'm dying with you, wench."
Brienne should have had something, anything to say to that, but she didn't. Should I tell him about Tyrion? Surely the brothers deserved a chance to see each other once more before the end, but would they even want to? And selfishly, she wanted to keep these last hours for herself, if indeed they were. Moved to stand beside him, shoulder to shoulder. Felt, despite everything, almost abjectly relieved. "You're foolish," she said softly. "You didn't have to."
"I did." Jaime coughed again. "So it was her, then? Daenerys?"
"Aye." Brienne bit her lip. "I – I don't think she's like Aerys. If you were wondering."
"If I've wasted my life? I was." Jaime's lips tightened. "If the city was going to burn under the Targaryens' orders sooner or later, and all I got was to be called Kingslayer. Or Queenslayer. I can't remember now how many slayers I am." He barked a humorless laugh. "I've made peace with it, I suppose. I've done what I can. I'm through."
Brienne reached for his golden hand and held it hard, then let go. The wind was shrilling, making her eyes water, whispering like fell voices. The temperature was dropping fast, ice creeping across the stone seemingly of its own accord, and every hackle on the back of her neck was standing up. "Jaime," she whispered, convinced of it. "They're here."
Without a word, he raised his sword. The effort it cost him was visible in his arms, both of them staggering as the cold hit, gazing out into the darkness and realizing that it had turned eerily luminous, a faint blue glow shining like earthbound stars. Something moving, rippling, delicate as white silk. The city and the ships and the castle, all of them, this place where only politics and power and the game of thrones were supposed to be the danger, King's Landing, how could it have come to this, King's Landing under attack from the Others – here with Jaime Lannister at her side and above dragons, dragons, dragons –
And then –
Brienne never saw where the first one came from, only that it was there, springing over the wall and towering up, up up up, tall as terror, an elegant slender figure with shifting crystalline armor like moonlit shadow and unearthly blue eyes, swinging at her in a blur she barely saw – but she was turning to meet it, and while the sound the blades made when they kissed was utterly unholy, the dragonfire-imbued steel did not shatter as an ordinary sword would have, and the Other stumbled back, momentarily off guard. Then it was only a battle, only another brawl, she had fought the Brave Companions and killed them, and they could be no worse monsters than this. With all her strength, Brienne leapt after it, and gave herself up entirely.
It was fast, but so was she. It was agile, but so was she, and she had not spent all those years training for nothing. She was dimly aware of another one clambering over the edge, and Jaime turning to meet it with a smirk on his face and a jest on his lips, perhaps indeed the only way he would have cared to die, and then the black clouds were ripped apart as a dragon – she could not tell which – soared overhead, blistering the wallwalk in flames. Others were burning and blundering, but still coming, and her sword seemed to be blazing brighter and brighter in her hand. It laced through the night, a bright pennon, stitching intricate embroidery from side to side, up and down, through, across, beneath, above. She was strong, here. She was enough.
If there was a greater battle, if there was a city or a castle or a world or time still going on, Brienne did not know. It was only one foe after another, every blow and parry having to be perfect, waiting until she found a weakness and drove the length of burning steel into them, as the starlight armor cracked and fissured away and the Others began to melt, columns of icy smoke swept up in the wind. She would not let them pass, would not let any of them pass, not caring about anything except her next stroke, feeling the echoes of it judder up her arms. She was proud that she was who she was, proud that she was Brienne of Tarth, Brienne the Blue, Brienne the tall ugly freak of a woman, for this Brienne could swing a sword and fight for what she believed in, still hope and trust and love, and this Brienne was truly beautiful.
In a trance, in a thrall, Brienne fought steadily on. Sometimes she thought she caught more glimpses of the dragons, other times she thought it was only a ghost, but she was still alive, still battling. The night will end. It will. Ice bit into her face, swirling down from the black sky, scything into her lungs. One after another after another after another. I won the melee at Bitterbridge. I was stronger than them all. And over and over again, from the hollow hill to the Quiet Isle to White Harbor to the Vale to here. I can. I can. I can.
The queer emptiness of the world, the lack of resistance when she swung her blade for the hundredth or thousandth or ten thousandth time, finally caught her by surprise. The air was grey and silent, and the tower walk was littered with broken ice and blue pools like melted sky. King's Landing still stood beneath the walls of the castle, and a faint crimson scorched the eastern horizon, flushing the underside of steelsheen clouds. The night is over. She was shaking with exhaustion, sweat freezing her clothes solid, suddenly aware that she could not lift her sword one more time without collapsing – but still the silence reigned. No movement. Nothing.
Did we win? Brienne did not know. Did not know what had happened across the city as a whole, if there had only been so many Others to begin with, if the dragons had burned them all into oblivion, or if they had to retreat at first light and would return again tonight. If the battle was over or merely beginning. If anyone had been saved. But still her. Still –
She turned slowly, so slowly. Her legs were giving out, weak with weariness, she needed to sink down, to break, to go under, to drown, but not quite yet. She was crawling on hands and knees the rest of the way across the stones, to where Jaime lay with arms outstretched, white cloak tangled under him, sword fallen from his fingers, eyes wide and clear and utterly untroubled. He gave a small, faint sigh as she lifted him into her arms, his head rolling into the crook of her elbow and resting there. "Look," he murmured. "Look, Brienne. The sun's coming up."
"Aye," she managed. "It is. We've made it. This will go into the White Book. How you were – how you are – a hero. You are. All the songs will say so."
His colorless lips turned up in half a smile. "And the singers get to make history, I suppose," he whispered. "Don't let them come up with anything too dreadful, wench."
"You'll be there," she told him fiercely, as if she could make it so. "You can hear them yourself. On Tarth, remember? You'll come to Tarth. We have plenty of singers there."
Jaime was not listening. He was looking past her, brow creased in puzzlement – and then in utter, blank shock. "Tyrion?"
Torn from her reverie, Brienne jerked her head up and followed the direction of his gaze. It felt as if something had hit her in the stomach, driving her wind out, as she realized that the small figure standing a few yards away, turned black by the shadow of the dawn, battered and bruised and bloody but still breathing –
Tyrion Lannister made no sound, spoke no word, as he regarded his fallen brother. It was impossible to tell what emotions were at play behind the mask of his squashed face. He took one step, and then another, and squatted on Jaime's other side. "Aye," he said at last, very quietly. "It looks as if you finally got what you deserved."
Jaime convulsed with something not laughter, closer to a sob. "I'm sorry," he choked. "About Tysha. About – about everything."
Tyrion's face remained expressionless. His hunched shoulders shook, his fingers opening and closing, raw and scraped, the tips blackened with frostbite. His hand moved out, retreated, then moved back again, closing over his brother's. "Damn you."
"I know." Jaime's body shuddered with one long, racking sigh, settling back into Brienne's arms. "I know."
The dawn turned to silver glass. Tyrion stayed unmoving, barely breathing, holding on. Brienne held even tighter. But a glimmer of light fell over the battlements, reflecting in Jaime's opaque eyes. He seemed to smile. Then he let out a long sigh, turned his face to her shoulder, and quietly, softly, easily after all his suffering, he died.