Roland Crakehall sank down next to the fitfully sleeping man on the cot -- Donnel of Duskendale, his sworn brother -- and buried his head in his hands.
The Maester assured him that Donnel would heal. There would be bruising and tenderness, yes, but Donnel's armor had stopped the worst of the blow from the lance that had unhorsed him.
But the rider who had delivered that blow, Prince Baelor?
Prince Baelor was dead.
And Roland knew that he had failed in his duty to protect the blood of the dragon, despite the fact that it had been Baelor's own brother, Prince Maekar who had dealt the fatal blow.
Not that Roland could have stopped Maekar -- he was forbidden to raise a weapon against those he had sworn to protect -- but if he had been on the field, battling Lyonel Baratheon or that hedge knight, Ser Duncan, it might have gone differently.
If. If. If.
If he had done what he was supposed to do -- if he had run over an assisted Prince Aerion in fighting Ser Duncan, the two of them could've swiftly dispatched the hedge knight, ending the Trial of Seven then and there, possibly before Maekar swung his mace in that mortal blow.
(But Roland didn't like Aerion. Nobody did. But then again, his job was to protect members of the royal family, not to pass judgement on them.)
If he had run over to engage Lyonel Baratheon, instead of leaving Maekar to battle both his brother and "the Laughing Storm", Maekar and Baelor's stances might have been different, and Maekar more controlled and less desperate in his blows.
If. If. If.
Donnel had called out to him, gasping in pain.
And Roland hadn't thought to do anything but help him from the field.
Baelor had needed him, Aerion had needed him, and Roland had thrown duty aside the moment Donnel called his name.
The candle burned down two marks before Roland stirred himself again. His path was clear now. He would go to both Prince Valarr and King Daeron and confess his failure and ... accept his fate.
Reaching out, Roland gently took Donnel's hand in his. Donnel stirred slightly but did not wake -- the maester had given him a strong dose of the poppy.
Nothing to do now but wait ... and relieve Ser William Wylde in a mark.
Donnel, being Donnel, insisted on getting out of bed and reporting for duty as soon as his legs would support him. Roland heard every pained hitch in his breath as his armor shifted.
The word had come from the King. They were going to give Prince Baelor to the flames today, not take his body back to Kings Landing, and that it meant it would take The Warrior himself or The Stranger made flesh to keep Donnel in his sickbed.
"I don't know who I pity more," Donnel murmured when it was all done. "Prince Maekar or Ser Duncan."
Roland nodded his head knowingly. "The whispers will follow them all the days of their lives." Roland swallowed hard. "Donnel, I've a confession of my own to make ..." and he let spill with what had troubled him since that bloody day.
When he finished, Donnel hawked and spat before saying, "If that's so, Roland, then mine's the fault as much as yours. I asked you to help me from the field.
"But consider this -- perhaps this is the way in which the Seven made their working, showed their judgment. And who are we to question that?"
"You sound like a Septon now." Roland chortled bitterly. "Getting bookish and introspective on me?"
Donnel ignored the dig and continued, as serious Roland had ever seen him about anything, "I'm no scholar, and you know how often I visit the sept. But, I'm saying that maybe this was all fated. No, not maybe. The Gods have spoken. And to suggest otherwise is to say that you, a man, would try to question their judgment.
"Hold your tongue on this, Roland, I beg you. For both our sakes. It might be sheer blind chance, it might be the will of the Seven that made you come to me and not to them, but the Targaryens have seldom been known for their patience or their mercy."
It was one of the longer speeches Roland had heard from the former hedge knight. "It won't happen again, I swear," he whispered.
Donnel flashed him a sad half-smile. "Don't make promises you cannot keep."
"Are you saying I am not a man of my word?" Roland replied, chagrined.
Donnel sighed wearily and scratched at his beard. "No, Roland, never that. I'm just saying that I know us."
"And what does that mean?"
"It means that I'm tired of pretending, Roland."
Donnel held up a hand, cutting him off. "No more pretending, no more denying, Roland. Our vows mean that we inherit no lands, sire no children, and that our watch ends only with our death, and we Kingsguard do not live to be old men. Our vows speak of our duties, but they say nothing of loving, or not loving."
Roland's knees sagged and his mouth turned dry. He sank slowly to his cot.
A moment later, Donnel knelt before him and reached out with his large, scarred hand. His touch was surprisingly gentle as he cupped Roland's jaw, then tilted his face upwards. Roland had only the briefest impression of the fire in his eyes before Donnel's lips met his.
No hesitation. Donnel of Duskendale never hesitated once he began -- it was one of the things Roland admired most in him. It was what had made him a champion in the lists and on the field, allowing him to rise from hedge knight to Kingsguard, what made him so deadly to several assassins who had made attempts on the Royal Family.
Roland gave himself over without further thought on the matter. And if he were damned to some hell because of it? At least he had left the lonely one he had dwelt in since the day he had knelt and sworn his vows.