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Queen in the North

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Brienne thinks unsisterly thoughts about the Targaryen bitch as the grass of the Gift withers underfoot. Once upon a time, she half admired the rumour-stories that spattered Westeros from across the narrow sea. A woman to be reckoned with, and Brienne knows too few of those. Not her own Queen, of course, but Brienne’s King is long dead, and she hasn’t troubled too much about splitting her loyalties since. Her first loyalty is always, now, to herself, and her honour.

And now to this girl. Hair the colour of flame, she fits into the blasted lands more comfortably than Brienne’s pallor. Strange, in a Stark. She looks bred to dragon-life.

But then, much is strange in Westeros today. Winter is coming, so they said, and the southron lands shivered. Now, when dragonsbreath is unleashed, the world is praying for winter.

Heading northwards with a Stark, Brienne hopes, is the most logical course for anyone in this new-formed world.

*

Pieces of luck have accompanied Brienne since the breath of burning death first stirred the air. To be in King’s Landing, and to have ears free to catch the unease among the maesters, that was her fortune, else she and the Stark girl would be cinders by now. Like Dorne, and Highgarden, and probably King’s Landing by now. She suspects that the frozen Eyrie may hold out longer, but when it burns, there will be no place for its occupants to run. The Iron Islands are drowning in refugees, says the word on the tramping path, and Brienne can well believe it. When danger comes from the east, wise men flee west. But compass points are insufficient protection on this task. They need cold. Cold to the bones and the marrow, else they will be skeleton-burned like the fields of warriors Danaerys Targaryen has already sown.

“She has the power, but not the lore,” said the maester, the first maester to whisper their doom. Brienne never knew his name. He was elderly, worried-looking (but then, who among the maesters was not that, that last day at court?). She hopes he lives, because he saw what was coming sooner than any other, and he gave her the words she needed to understand it too. The court was hypnotised with imagining a dragon queen, riding fire-beasts out of the sky, warrior to her fingertips. But that maester knew better. Had read more, studied harder, and understood where the nightmare truly lay. “The dragonsbreath… She has raised it.”

They had scoffed at him. And then the eagles had come. Burned and flying lame, feather-stubs still smoking, with tidings of Yunkai, then Volantis and the fields of the dead, incinerated by the power of the dragons combined, and the queen who cannot control them. If she even still lives.

When the first eagle was sighted, Brienne was lightly guarded. A good prisoner, a fine parolee. She slipped her guards easily enough. But the girl saw her. From the shadows where Sansa Stark hid herself, the voice had come.

“What are you doing?”

Brienne had had no time for lies. She considered killing the girl, but that had never been her way. So she told her the truth. “I’m heading north. The world is going to burn, and I don’t wish to join it.”

The girl should have been frightened at the doom coming to their world. Or a loyal little Joffreyite and tattletold on Brienne. But she had passingly uttered the one word which Brienne knows now would divert Sansa – or any Stark in exile – better than any other. “North?” The word transformed her, from a beautiful girl in hiding, mousy of demeanour and hesitant of step. Sansa became, fleetingly, the golden goddess she always should be. And Brienne thought, or hoped hopelessly perhaps, that returning a Stark to the north made a kind of sense in a world which made none. Take the girl to the godswood of Castle Black, make her pray to her old gods, perhaps some winter spirit would revive. Or, belike, they would at least be within striking distance of the Wall and beyond. Beyond the Wall, Brienne had thought hazily, was such a frozen waste that perhaps the dragonsbreath would not have power. Or better, would transform it into a broad, floral meadow like-

Like places Brienne was better not thinking of, then, now or ever again. She has tried to wipe them from memory, sap the dragons' power to destroy her world by sloughing it before they come.

“Come with me,” she had said, and had not made it a question. “Bring essentials. Bring shoes. We are going to walk for our lives.”

She tells herself she saved the girl because it was a tiny hope of salvation amid the fear and the flight. But she knows she also saved her for that red hair, for that mouselike demeanour hiding a northwoman of steel, for someone to talk with and protect, for someone to go on for. And because, in all that court, Brienne had met no one more trapped than herself, except for this girl. Freeing her reminded Brienne that freedom was a possibility.

Take a Stark north, with the burning desert at your heels, and don’t look back, Brienne. There’s nothing left to see.

*

Sansa hadn’t believed Brienne about the doom. Brienne knows that, and sympathises, for her own belief was a fragile thing until the proofs could no longer be explained away by summer sunshine. It was not till they reached the Trident, and the Red Fork had dried to a sluggish trickle while the Blue and Green still ran merrily from the north that Sansa truly understood that the breath of life was being burned from the lands. Then she had crossed the Red Fork barefoot and almost dry-shod, landed the other side, and stolen them a pair of horses from an inn’s stableyard, as though she were the cunning knight among them. Brienne had believed then, too, in her own strategy. Time to move faster, fleeter, more to the north. The burning lands were catching them.

The horses are dead now, and Castle Black is a memory behind them. Its godswood was desecrated, and Sansa spent mere moments there. No prayers. There was no magic in those stumps to save the world. Now they are in scent of the Wall, if not in sight quite yet, and Brienne is losing hope that its cold can save them. The land is browning, before it burns.

“Beyond the Wall,” Sansa says, “What is there?”

“I don’t know,” Brienne responds. Snow and ice, for sure, but what lies under that is a mystery to all, even those who paid more attention to their schooling than she. “Wildlings and wargs and dead men who walk, so much I know,” she adds, because she kept her ears open at court for more than the doom of dragonsbreath, “But they hate the sun and the heat. They won’t come for us.”

“We could be trapped,” says Sansa, fragile courage taut and defiant, “Between the frost and the fire. There might be no middle way for us. You don’t know.”

“I don’t,” admits Brienne, “But I know I’d rather freeze than burn. A kinder death, and slower. Mother winter takes you in her arms and you know no fear. I don’t want to die as dragon tinder.” It’s too honest. Sansa shivers.

Shivers again.

“Lord,” says Brienne, in language a knight should not use for a lady, but this wonder is too much for politesse, “Are you cold?”

Sansa nods. And Brienne feels it too, then, now she allows it to herself. The prickle of a north wind, of ice crystals in the air. It starts to rain, a light mizzle of chill hitting heat, and nothing has felt so good since well before King’s Landing. Nothing since they left has fought back against the dragonsbreath, but here it is slackening. Here is a power that might come to rival the fires.

“We’d better find shelter,” says Brienne, automatically. A response from long ago, from weeks ago, when rain was still a mere inconvenience or a welcome crop-waterer. Not life and hope and a future combined.

“Must we?” Sansa dances a few steps on blistered, aching feet, palms turned up to the water-miracle in the sky.

“Well, to sleep,” Brienne amends. “I’ve not forgotten my learning, if you have, but a soldier never sleeps with wet feet, not if he wants to march again. We’ll find somewhere and be snug tonight. And tomorrow, onwards to the Wall, my lady.”

She hasn’t called Sansa Stark that since they started. They were but two pilgrims of fear, equal in flight, and naming old honours had never seemed important. But now, with the rain, there is just the fleetest possibility that their world is not gone entirely. That Brienne might serve the Queen in the North; that a North might remain. That there might be other people in it, if they can find them, if they can find their way northwards ahead of the burning. Dizzying, the possibility of a tomorrow to tomorrow.

She imagines tonight, and tonight will mean snug shelter and warm fire, and huddling together in their bedrolls. Sleeping close and deep, with chill on their faces.

Tonight will not be the night that Brienne walks tentative fingers down Sansa’s thighs and hitches skirts to discover whether the Stark girl feels those impulses that Brienne has felt every time this long tramp has slackened, when their eyes have met and Brienne thinks that Sansa sees her as perhaps a little more than pragmatic protection. But that night might – just – lie in their future now, now that there is one. The warmth of that thought is the only kind of warmth Brienne welcomes today.

*