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Fire Burning Against the Cold

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Eight days into the journey and Brynden Rivers has barely left the open air. Each day he stands in the aft-most part of the ship, face to the wind, his hair streaming out behind him, a sheet of bright white. At night he sits out on the main deck under the stars, drinking and speaking quietly with the men of the Raven's Teeth.

Only once they pass The Fingers does he stop staring relentlessly backwards and start to wander the decks a little.

Aemon prefers to rest in the doorway to the Maester's cabin, out of the way of the seamen. From this vantage point he watches his great-uncle slowly and painfully push fire back into his limbs. Lord Bloodraven no longer carries his sword and, to Aemon’s eyes, that makes his tentative gait even more stilted.

The men who sit with Brynden at night know him well. Far better than Aemon does. These Raven’s Teeth veterans volunteered for the Night's Watch in order to be here to accompany their leader into exile. They do not try to cajole him into better spirits or worry him with questions of his recent incarceration. They are simply beside him and when he speaks, they listen, and when his thoughts require distraction they tell old stories and gossip about former friends, quietly assisting his mind to re-find its footing. Aemon listens but does not offer words of his own.

On the tenth day, Aemon leans carefully against the port side, trying to catch a glimpse of Widow's Watch. Brynden leaves off his pacing to come and stand beside him.

"The Flints are ever vigilant, and my nephew too, it seems," Brynden observes.

"Yes, uncle," Aemon admits. He has been earnestly studying Brynden for days. There is much he would like to discuss with him and, in truth, there is little else to do while this ship bears them to the Wall.

"The Golden Dragon sits well in the water," Brynden says, "We make good time."

They've travelled well over a thousand sea miles around the coast of Westeros, they have almost as far to go again before they reach Eastwatch-by-the-Sea.

"Uncle, I have some ointment that would soothe your eye," Aemon ventures, not meaning his eye but the socket of the missing eye. He has seen how Brynden is irritated by it and he knows it needs to be cleaned and dressed carefully. The skin is dry and puffy and it is lined with dirt.

Brynden offers him a small sneer, the eyebrow above the socket lifts, no less haughty for being empty of its eye.

"Losing the eye did not kill me, but some dirt might?" Brynden challenges, but then relents, "Thank you, Aemon, your attentions would be most welcome."

Aemon nods, grateful for the acquiescence and for the chance to use his skills. He leads Brynden to his cabin and seats him at the small treating table in the corner of the room. He roots through his piles of supplies until he finds the flask he is after.

Brynden stays quiet beneath Aemon's hands as he carefully dusts the socket and then dabs at it with a cleanser that must sting. His attention is fully on his work until Brynden interrupts his thoughts.

"It feels good, my thanks. I forget, sometimes, that not all pain has to be borne."

"I shall give you this ointment, you can apply it yourself when the socket feels inflamed, but clean it first."

"You keep it," Brynden says, "I will come back for you to do it, if you do not object."

Aemon is pleased, "No, I would be happy to do so."

"Thank you." Brynden gets up to go. "I cannot stay too long inside this cabin, but come and join me on the deck tonight."

Aemon nods, again pleased to be invited.

That evening, he joins Brynden for a small supper of bread and cold meat. It is simple and reminds Aemon of his early days at the Citadel. The wine is hot though and Brynden summons up half a lime to squeeze into it. Aemon gives thanks for his food, recognising all the while that it is the wine he is most grateful for. He gazes up at the stars as he drinks; as always, his eyes search out the wanderers that decorate the night's sky.

Aemon wants to say something to Lord Brynden about Egg, about why he had to condemn Brynden's actions. He'd like to offer some measure of explanation or consolation, and defend his brother's decision, but he does not know how to begin. Brynden must know. He was the Hand of the King, he called for the Great Council that appointed Egg, he must have considered this outcome.

Aemon is saved from his own thoughts when Brynden starts to speak.

"I am as stained by my act as I am bloodied by the consequences," he says, "Long have I been considered kinslayer, all too bitterly true, but such is the way of fire and blood. Our greatest enemies have always been our own. My king seeks to assure the realm of the honour of a Targaryen's word. I had thought my bastardy would exclude me from that honour and absolve my perfidy but Aegon feels otherwise."

"You have been too close to the throne, for too long, for your birth to exonerate you," Aemon says.
"Perhaps. I notice it is a risk you assiduously avoid. You protect yourself from it with your Maester's chain and, soon, the Words of the Night's Watch. We must pray it is enough."

"I am the Targaryen they can do without," Aemon tells him, long acceptance drains the bitterness from this statement, and yet it is good to speak the truth aloud. He knows full well that Lord Brynden must have given counsel to King Daeron about sending Aemon to be a novice at the Citadel but Aemon has come to respect that decision.

Brynden directs his one eye pointedly at Aemon.

"They is now your brother and I do not doubt that he will feel your loss."

"I had no choice," Aemon asserts.

"You had more than I," Brynden admonishes him, "And that means you should already know as well as I do that choosing always hurts. If you do not feel it now, you will one day. Still, I cannot regret this course we take and I would make the same choices again. Aegon deserves the chance to rule unhindered and the Kingdoms need peace from pretenders."

Brynden pours more wine into their cups and knocks them together in a toast of gentle solidarity before he continues.

"Loyalty and service have lent meaning and purpose to my abilities in a way a crown could never have done. I have been fortunate not to covet it and I think you are the same. For that we can be grateful. Yet, all my life, I have been putting down threats to the Iron Throne. Perhaps, finally, I shall find a foe I do not despise and have the chance to defend the Seven Kingdoms themselves, not just its rulers. I shall say the Words proudly, I think."

"I, too, uncle," Aemon echoes.

"Not uncle, or great-uncle even; not for much longer. On the Wall, we shall be brothers."

Aemon nods, welcoming that thought - one small piece of family remaining with him. Perhaps Egg had thought of that when he provided this offering of prisoners to accompany Aemon to the Night's Watch, intending the banishment to extend to Lord Brynden.

Brynden gives Aemon a sudden, wry smile. "I wonder," he says, "do you think this splotch on my cheek could have been a crow all along?"