AN: So this fic is a collaboration between mrstater and myself. We wanted to write something semi-fluffy for the holidays, and this sort of...became its own animal. We'll be trying to do regular updates, but December is busy for everyone, so BEAR with us. ;)
It had begun to snow again.
The Kingsroad ahead was still more or less clear, previous snowfalls having been tamped down to slush by horses' hooves and cartwheels and the booted feet of intrepid travelers. On either side of the road, however, ditches piled up, and soon the drifts would be high enough that they must spill onto the path, closing the way behind them. There could be no turning back now, Jorah thought, shifting in his saddle to glance over his shoulder in the direction from which they'd ridden.
Not that there had been any turning back in a fortnight, when he'd declared to the queen as they broke their journey at a humble roadside inn that despite the odds set against them-a small party riding out in the dead of winter-they'd completed half the journey to Winterfell in no more time than it would have taken in the height of summer.
"Why so surprised?" Daenerys had asked with a smile, cradling a pewter flagon of scalding spiced mead as she curled in an armchair in the innkeep's own chamber, knees drawn up beneath her fur mantle. "Isn't that exactly why we struck out from King's Landing with but my Lord Commander, three Dothraki bloodriders, and my handmaids? So we might cut across my country with the swiftness of the winter wind?"
She'd reached out her hand to touch Jorah's cheek as he sat before her on a low stool to partake of their simple supper of stew and bread; if he closed his eyes, he could almost imagine they were back in Vaes Tolorro, in Qarth even, when such moments in her sole company had been sweet, as yet untainted by her rejection of his love, her discovery of his betrayal, his own shame at the brand burned into his flesh.
He'd sat back from her, and thought he heard the softest sigh as Daenerys had drawn back into her cloak. Or it might have been the hiss of a settling ember in the fireplace.
"You worry too much, my bear."
"Aye," he'd replied. "So my queen tells me."
Indeed, the journey itself did not lie at the heart of his anxieties. He'd survived greater perils journeying with Daenerys and her little khalasar, and even with a dwarf and no sword but his own in Essos, and Jorah knew winter. It was what they left behind that worried him: her long fought-for kingdom, entrusted to the rule of her Hand. The Martells were the Targaryens' oldest allies, it was true enough, and he'd agreed with Tyrion's advice that not only was Princess Elia's death, and her children's, cause to continue as joined Houses, but Oberyn's as well-Cersei's doing, and a further grievance for Dorne against Daenerys' Lannister enemies—but even so, Jorah was wary of admitting someone so little known to her as Lady Arianne as her closest counselor.
"You should be glad I didn't bind our houses in holy wedlock by marrying her brother Quentyn," Daenerys had said.
"You see? It's not only men's motives I mistrust in my queen's company," Jorah had japed, though Daenerys' uneasy laughter had made him second guess whether she had made light of their old quarrel.
Daario Naharis had turned cloak, but the queen never spoke of her former paramour, or of the jealousy Jorah had borne the bravo; likewise she was silent on the subject of Hizdahr zo Loraq, the husband she'd taken-and executed-in Meereen. He had not been sorry to learn of it-or that Quentyn Martell was not a rival for the queen's affections. Since she had taken her throne Jorah held his breath every time a new suitor sought her hand, but breathed more easily each time Daenerys sent them away and gave no indication that she desired to marry again, at least not any time soon, even as her rejection of them made him re-live her refusal of his own suit. He could not be sure whether she remembered that he had kissed her once, four years ago now, though scarcely a night had passed in the thousand since that he had not closed his eyes and felt her mouth open to his tongue, the bare hollow of her back beneath his callused fingertips, and woken again aching for her.
And why should she remember his vow to love her more truly and faithfully than any other man? She had forgiven him, but she could not forget; the demon's mask on his face presented her with a reminder of his betrayal each time she looked at him, as surely as that of justice having been meted out and served.
Of course, he was well aware that everyone else who looked at him saw him as a force not to be reckoned with; thus his relative certainty that between an unruly former slave and three Dothraki warriors armed with arakhs, few would present a threat to the queen in the road. Lady Arianne had said as much, sauntering up to where he'd stood guard over the Iron Throne and tracing a delicate fingertip over the bear rampant that clasped the ends of his white cloak at his throat.
"Gods speed your grace's journey. Only are you certain so fearsome a knight would not better serve to safeguard the queen's Hand and her realm?"
She'd spoken in tones as sweet as a dram of the Dornish red of her country-which was why Jorah had sensed a viper's hiss behind the sensuously curved lips.
"It wasn't a threat," Daenerys had told him when he expressed his concerns about leaving the seat from which she had ruled for scarcely longer than a year. "Just a game. A little game Lady Arianne is trying to get me to play along with. I'm sorry she drew you into it."
Her gaze had flickered briefly to the mark on his face, a sad furrow forming between her eyebrows, and Jorah realized he was being mocked. He'd never been a handsome man, even before the slavers' brand further marred his face, yet being the butt of a fair, highborn lady's japes-not to mention the fact that his queen, apparently, bore the brunt of his shame-was one more cause for dismay with every hoofbeat they came nearer to Winterfell.
A howling gust swept a swirl of snowflakes before Jorah's eyes, and he glanced down at Daenerys, pale skin and fair hair, wrapped in white fur upon her little silver mare. "We'll have to ride hard if we're to reach Winterfell before nightfall."
Her violet eyes glimmered bright as she lifted her face toward him. "Then let's ride hard, Ser Jorah."
With a grin, she dug her heels into her horse's flanks, her long braid whipping lose from her hood as it fell back and streamed out behind her; Jorah couldn't stop a smile as he spurred his own mount to keep pace with her, though it faded quickly enough after the initial burst of memory at riding like this with her through the Dothraki Sea receded. Daenerys was restless in King's Landing, he'd had known that even before she told him. In fact he'd suspected this day would come since they left Meereen and she'd admitted what a relief it was to leave behind the wooden bench where she'd held court in her pyramid. She'd grown too accustomed to the saddle as khaleesi to sit on her pretty little arse going nowhere and doing nothing toward her goal of reclaiming the Iron Throne. What had she thought she would do with the Iron Throne once she'd won it but sit on it? But the queen's nomadic existence went further back than her time with the Dothraki. She'd been born wandering, in search of her home.
And now that search appeared to be leading her to his.
His heart, pounding in time with the hoofbeats, leapt within him as they took a jump over a branch that had cracked under the burden of snow and fallen across the path, only to come crashing back to earth again with the landing. The smile fell from his face, and his gloved fingers slackening on the reins, so that his horse began to lag behind Daenerys on her silver. Gripping them all the harder, he pushed ahead, keeping apace, though he could not match her mood again. How could he dare to hope that Daenerys would find what she sought when he had no way of knowing whether the long and wandering road he'd taken to Bear Island really would lead him home?
Maege still had the rule of the island. She knew he lived and was on the way, for he'd sent a raven to inform her of the Queen's intent to see the northlands, and her terse reply had been a typical one for any of his kin, expressing no wish that he not return. Though how could she, when he wrote as her liege's own emissary? Nor did she pen one word of forgiveness.
He may look on the familiar, beloved pines that stood where they had for a thousand years, before his kinfolk did, but their arms stretched ever upward, and could not bow to embrace.
As for Daenerys…not for the first time did the sight of her remind him of Lynesse. And while he knew the similarities between the two women went only skin deep, and his love for Daenerys had taken root much, much deeper… Daenerys was also not the first fair young lady who asked him to take her home, and it was most likely she, like the one who had come before, would find only bitter disappointment. He could not allow his mind to travel further down the road to hope; that way lay only madness.
Ser Jorah had looked as though he thought her mad when she had proposed, more than a month ago now, that they visit his family's island. It did seem a bit mad to abandon the throne she had sat for barely a year, but Dany was confident her Hand would rule well in her stead, and truth be told, Kings' Landing was beginning to stifle her.
She had expected a hard fight for her kingdom, but the chaos she found among the ruins of Westeros still had shocked her. Winning the land was simpler than keeping it – even after their defeat, the high lords grumbled and bickered and, she suspected, whispered behind her back. She had pardoned men for crimes she had not witnessed, witnessed crimes she could not fathom, and smiled brightly at those she would sooner see hanged, drawn, and quartered. After their War of Five Kings, it was left to her to sew back together the pieces of this broken country.
She did not know how she would have done it without Lady Arianne. The Dornish princess had the Westerosi breeding Dany lacked, and was completely fearless besides. She would have been a perfect choice for the Queen's Hand even had Dany not been bound to her family by an old promise and by her guilt at poor Quentyn's demise.
Even with Arianne's help, keeping Westeros was more challenging even than navigating the political quagmire of Meereen. Part of her had expected her countrymen to welcome her with open arms – as the Martells had – but most simply seemed to resent her and her foreign army. Ser Jorah had been right about that - and about so much else.
At the crossroads inn he had made a jape of his fervent mistrust of her early allies, yet she could not deny that his paranoia had been painfully accurate.
"You were right about the motives of men," she had admitted, "but I know women well enough. Lady Arianne has no reason to deceive me."
"As you say, your grace."
Though Daenerys still trusted her knight's advice, she often took it more warily than she had before she had learned of his dealings with Lord Varys. In some ways - though it pained her to think so - she doubted her faith in him would ever be what it once was. She had not been keen to welcome him back when he had appeared at her court in Meereen, but the voice that had whispered to her in the grass won out – and perhaps the child in her as well, who only wanted her bear at her side again. The ruler in her kept him at a distance, allowing him a place in her Queensguard but not a return to his position as captain of her army and first of her knights. It had taken weeks to bring herself to look at him again, longer to speak to him without choking back tears, and months of battle before she allowed herself to believe he was truly on her side. Her Commander, sweet old Ser Barristan who had been like a father to her, had fallen in the final battle and she had allowed Jorah to replace him only after she had sent his body to the Stormlands and finished his entry in the White Book with her own hand.
Hizdahr she had executed, Daario Naharis had turned cloak and taken his Stormcrows with him, and so it was as it had been in the beginning, but for the addition of her Unsullied – Queen Daenerys and her khalasar, swelled with the addition of the late Khal Jhaqo's riders, her bloodriders, and her Queensguard. The new Queen of Westeros had received no shortage of marriage proposals, but most of the men remaining in Westeros after the long war were either much too young or much too old, and Dany was already weary of political marriages. Despite Lady Arianne's constant efforts at matchmaking, she preferred to rule on her own for the near future.
Not that that decision had silenced her Hand.
"Then we shall find you a paramour."
"I do not want one."
"Your Grace, you are the most beautiful woman in all the world – next to myself, of course – surely you would not waste the flower of your beauty growing sour on your twisted chair."
"Next to yourself? Surely I have misheard you, most loyal friend."
Arianne had ignored the barb and plowed on, determined.
"The Lord Commander loves you."
At that, Dany had felt the familiar flush that came when a member of her court insisted on reminding her of what she had known already for years. She knew he had loved her, but everything had been different between them after Meereen. She had not known what she felt for him even when she had believed in his loyalty completely, and now she was less certain than ever. And she had a kingdom to rule.
She gave Arianne her customary response. "Ser Jorah is the head of my Queensguard and my trusted protector. Not a plaything."
"As though any man minds being played with," the Hand snorted.
"Knights of the Queensguard swear not to take lovers, as you well know."
"Vows can be broken, my queen. I have a taste for white knights myself…in fact, if you let your Commander linger too long I may try at him. That demon tattoo is so…dangerous."
She was only jesting, but Dany did not like to be reminded of what had happened to Ser Jorah during his banishment under the walls of her own city.
"That is not amusing, Lady Arianne."
She had used her most queenly tone, and her Hand demurred. "My apologies, Your Grace."
Of course Dany had known that would not be the end of it. Lady Arianne had indeed tried – Arianne Martell always made good on her threats – but fortunately Ser Jorah had only been confused at her somewhat less than subtle hints. She was always careful to speak to him within the Queen's hearing, and Dany fought to suppress her giggles at the woman's antics. Though she had to admit, poor Jorah's blatant ignorance was oddly endearing.
Yet in the past weeks Arianne's once amusing persistence had become grating as the walls of the Red Keep grew smaller around Dany. Her palace had begun to feel like a gilded cage, her crown like a weight bearing down upon her head. Her bloodriders were at each others' throats after so many months living within the gates of the city, and she could see how they longed for the open skies above their great grass sea. Even Jorah, who had adapted quietly to every strange location she had brought them to, seemed ill at ease in the capital city of their homeland.
For years she had done what she must to fulfill her destiny, to protect her realm. Just for a brief time, Daenerys Targaryen wanted to feel free.
"Your Grace," her Lord Commander had protested, "You've only just woven the kingdom back together, are you certain it would be wise to leave now?"
"I am not leaving my kingdom. In fact, I expect it will do me good to see more of it. I've left Lady Sansa to her own devices in the vast North, should I not inspect her efforts for myself?"
"That would take you to Winterfell, not to Bear Island."
"And if I make a small detour on the way, what does it matter?"
"It is not on the way, khaleesi."
It was just like him, she thought, to stubbornly insist on arguing with her even when she was trying to give him something he wanted. And Dany did not miss the transition to the Dothraki title he often used as a persuasive tactic. Well, she had tactics of her own.
"I promised to bring you home," she reminded him, trying a softer tone.
That at least earned her a pause before he countered, "You brought me to Westeros."
"That was not what I meant."
"It is enough."
Maybe for him, but not for her. She took his hands in hers and addressed him directly, as she so rarely had since his banishment.
"Jorah. My bear. You refuse to believe anything good will ever happen. The war is over now, and we have won. Can you not let the past be?"
That silenced him, so Dany seized her opening.
"This city is choking me. I need air. Take me to your island. Please?"
They set out on the Kingsroad a fortnight later, with her bloodriders and as small a retinue as Dany could manage. The Hand made a striking figure perched upon the Iron Throne, but the Queen felt confident that her kingdoms were secure under Lady Arianne's protection.
Thus far they had made excellent time, and Dany already felt freer on the back of her silver, surveying her kingdom with her own eyes in the cold, clean air. Her Dothraki were quietly thrilled to be on horseback again; Jhogo and Aggo bragged and japed with one another all along the Kingsroad, and Irri and Rakharo often rode suspiciously close to one another as Jhiqui scowled behind them.
As Castle Cerwyn grew further behind them, she realized both her handmaids had been suspiciously quiet this morning. Sure enough, she spied Irri and Rakharo several feet ahead of the rest of the party, their spurred feet nearly touching. Dany could not help but smirk a little at the sight of them.
Though Ser Jorah had kept pace at her side since morning, it took her a moment to realize he was looking at her. When she turned to him he raised a questioning eyebrow, and she raised hers in response, nodding at the riders in front of them. He seemed not to understand for a moment, but soon a slow grin spread across his face.
Something about his expression made her pulse quicken. Dany nearly drew her reins back in surprise at her own reaction; as a young bride in Essos she had found comfort in his smiles, but this was something different. Was it only that it had been so long since he had been at ease in her presence? That riding across Westeros with only her Dothraki for company made her remember a time when things were simpler between them?
Before she could sort her thoughts, his smile dropped. In the distance, the round spire of a tower rose up before them, surrounded in the next moment by a set of massive stone walls lined in snow.
Ser Jorah cleared his throat.
"Winterfell, Your Grace."