She returned to find Westeros a broken Kingdom; Dorne was a barren wasteland, King’s Landing torn and bloodied, Dragonstone a scarred rock held by a scarred flower-knight. The South was run amok with rapists and criminals, the north by wildings and dead men.
Only one Pretender remained.
“Stannis Baratheon is as stubborn as he is hard.” Ser Barristan had told her, “He will not bend the knee.”
He spoke as though Daenerys would spare his life, this Pretender who dared claim her lands, this Stag who dared think he was a Dragon; a man so accustomed to the word ‘Usurper’ could not be allowed to live. She’d said as much to her small council, and while most agreed or relented there was one whose tongue would always forget its place.
“When White Walkers and dead men break through the Wall and all seven hells are released, do you think it will matter who is king or queen?” the Imp had demanded, his single nostril flaring, and Daenerys had almost laughed in his face. What a strange little man he was, sat preaching like a septa to a child while his own feet dangled far from the floor.
Oh, she would happily fight against grumpkins and snarks, but she had been through too much, lost too many, to lose her crown to this Stag ‘King’. She would rise against the Others, she would ride her children against the wights, she would draw the burning blade and become Azor Ahai… but she wouldn’t do it with a Baratheon at her side. So she’d led her mismatched army of Unsullied and sellswords and renegade Lannisters to the North, to where the Stag ‘King’ and his meagre host sheltered in the house of the Starks.
A battle, some would call it, but she knew it to be a massacre.
Afterwards, as the fires died down and the screams diminished, Daenerys Targaryan entered Winterfell on foot, her children circling like great storm clouds above. With every swoop, their wings passed shadows dark as nightfall over the mush of melted stone and broken castle. The stench of burnt flesh was thick enough in the air to be edible, foul to her nose yet oddly sweet to her tongue. Beside her, Ser Barristan did not so much as twitch his nose- she imagined the smell to be much the same as the roasted Dornish Prince.
The Imp, however, coughed, toed a charred mound of gore, and sniffed with that half-nose of his.
“Perhaps we should forgo a victory feast,” He coughed again, “I think I’ve very much lost my appetite.”
Dany regarded the Halfman through heavy-lidded eyes. This lion has no stomach, she thought, yet Jorah said it was I with the gentle heart.
Bones crunched and turned to dust beneath her booted feet as she walked through the courtyard, past soldiers placed on guard over the few kneeling dead-eyed survivors. Most would be of no use to her, she knew. One seemed already half-crazed, ugly and disfigured as he was, fighting his chains and screaming “MY NAME IS REEK! REEK! IT RHYMES WITH FREAK!” at the top of his lungs. A soldier in Lannister crimson backhanded him across the face and his shrieks lapsed into whimpers and sobs as Daenerys walked on.
The Bolton bastard had destroyed much of Winterfell long before her own horde had arrived, but the fire of her children now left it nothing more than smouldering stone and burnt soil. What little metal had survived the heat shone red, and there were more bodies on the ground than leaves in a bush- great big dirty sacks, they were, shapeless and shrivelled. Daenerys avoided them as she would patches of mud, treading towards the empty shell of a small Keep. Stones, that could once have been gargoyles, smattered the floor here and there, but her attention was drawn to the empty black of a doorway at the foot of the shell. It was this she sought, and with a torch-bearing Unsullied ahead all four descended.
Here the bodies took shape and form; this was where the real battle had been. Some were her red Lannisters and shaven Unsullied, more were leathery men with swords in hand and badges upon their breasts, stags and mermen and giants and bears. She wondered if her Jorah would have taken up arms against these Mormonts. He was spared that, at least.
“The majority of the Baratheon army was destroyed by the dragon fire, Your Grace,” Ser Barristan told her as they descended, “but some fled to the crypts in time. Our men have only just broken through.”
They passed several levels as they went, all of them dark, all of them silent. Those nearest the surface had died first. Yet as they went deeper and deeper the sounds of clashes and crashes could be heard, the yells and grunts of men as the Pretender’s remaining few fought to the last.
And with each step the sounds dwindled, one fewer clash, one fewer battle cry, until at last they stopped just as Daenerys reached them. Only the Unsullied remained. They did not so much as glance at her, stood at the ready in the long vaulted tunnel, blades dripping blood. The Stag’s men had cut down all Lannisters who had dared join the Unsullied, their bodies littering the floor along with their foes. A one-armed man still drew breath, twitching and moaning pitifully.
“Give him mercy.” Daenerys ordered, and the moans were silenced with the slither of a knife.
The few remaining torches flickered as she passed them, flames leaning towards her like flowers caught in a breeze. The shadows they threw across the walls of the crypt seemed to move with life, swarming over the likeness of the Northern Kings. On her left a shadow crept ahead along the pillars; for a moment it might have been the silhouette of a man, tall and broad of shoulder, but in the blink of an eye it was once more shapeless, just a smear on the wall.
“Your Grace,” The Imp’s voice, “A girl.”
She stepped deeper into the gloom, blood clinging to the soles of her boots as she peered forward, signalling for the torches. The light flooded the vault like a wave. Now Dany could see her. She was a girl no older than ten, small and fragile, with only a bloodstained nightgown to warm her, sat, head bowed, on the cold floor. A large and broad man was stretched out beside her, his head cradled in her lap. He was alive, but just barely. There was too much blood, Dany knew, for him to rise again.
“Girl.” She called, voice echoing, but the girl gave no sign she’d heard.
The man’s breath came in wet, ragged spurts, each gasp a shade shallower. His lips moved, mouth working soundlessly for words that would not- could not- come. The girl’s hand brushed back through his hair to rest on the crown of his head. The long, delicate fingers of the other traced the sharp angles of his face, ran lightly across his jawbone, around the ridges of his ear.
The Imp had a curious look on his face. His eyes would not meet Daenerys’. Behind him, Ser Barristan's passive gaze roamed the vault and the bodies on the floor, though it flickered often to the scene before them.
“Girl.” She repeated, firmer this time.
The girl didn’t respond. Her forefinger lightly tapped the bridge of the man’s nose, followed the creases around his mouth. For an absurd moment Daenerys felt almost rude, as though she were intruding on a private moment; two pairs of blue eyes like open wounds, boring into each other.
And then, with a dry rattle, Stannis Baratheon died.
The girl’s hand passed down over the Stag King’s face, sliding shut glazed eyes. Her fingertips ran over the shape of his lips, as if remembering kisses on her brow.
The Imp took a step forward, the scuff of his boots impossibly loud in the silence.
“Child.” He called softly, and as if waking from a dream the girl’s head rose, the light of the torches finally reaching her face.
One cheek and much of her neck was mottled and grey, the dead skin a shadow on her homely face. Her ears protruded and her jaw was a square jut, but the blue eyes that settled on Daenerys were without fear.
“You are the Dragon Queen.” She said.
Daenerys lifted her chin, held the child’s gaze. “Yes.”
The girl blinked and tilted her head to the side. Her thumb brushed over the dark stubble on her father’s cheek.
“I am the Stag Queen.”
Far away, a horn bellowed long and deep.