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between breaths

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It was cold in the cave. The sand beneath him was soft, almost warm compared to the waterfall that he and the boy had passed through. It roared behind him, and his sword lay across his lap, a whetstone in his two-fingered right hand. He did not move to draw the stone along the edge of the blade.

Qhorin Halfhand tips his head back, and he knew. Knew that he would not survive the next day.

It troubled him less than it should. He glances towards the sleeping boy and his sodden cloak, a great white direwolf stretched out beside him, and sighs, quietly through his nose.

Jon Snow was still half a boy, as Ebben had said, before he left. He thinks that Ebben must be dead. It’s no easy thing, Qhorin has learnt, from his years in command, to send men to their deaths. Yet someone must do what needs to be done, and though men have called him a cold, hard bastard, he has always done his duty. Always obeyed his vows.

Qhorin thinks that he does not deserve this end, at the hands of a brother of the Watch. Yet, he will do what needs to be done, as he always has.

The boy looks younger in his sleep, as men often do, his long Stark face relaxed, his scraggly beard half-frozen from the waterfall. Qhorin’s chest seizes, and a sob catches in his throat. He does not let it escape. He will not. He is a man of the Night’s Watch. And his Watch has not ended – not yet.

The boy mumbles in his sleep, his brother’s name, the King in the North. What a folly the game of thrones is, a mummer’s farce. It does not matter – not when the Others are coming, not when winter is coming.

The white direwolf stirs and raises its head. It stares at Qhorin with calm red eyes. A shiver passes through him, and he remembers the dream that a frightened Jon Snow babbled to him – a lifetime ago, it seems, when hope was still high.

Warg, a warg is what Snow is, even if he doesn’t realise it yet, even if he does not want to accept it. The direwolf pads over to him, as silent as snowfall. It bends its great head to lick at his right hand, and looks back to him, and weight builds in Qhorin’s throat. The direwolf knows, it seems. It leans against his side for a brief moment, a long line of warm fur, before moving back towards Jon.

Gods, he does not want to die. Tears sting at his eyes, but he does not let them fall, refusing to allow himself weakness. Qhorin resolves to die as he lived, a warrior, a man of the Night’s Watch. His death will strike a blow to the wildlings, he will allow a spy to be brought to the heart of the wildling army.

His death will mean something. Qhorin knows that this is more than most get, and he is grateful, he supposes.

Jon Snow will do his duty, gods help the poor lad. The boy will do his duty because he is a Stark, in blood if not in name. Qhorin hopes Snow will get over his death, in time.

The moon shivers through the waterfall, heavy in the sky. It is near moonset, Qhorin realises, but makes no move to wake Jon. The boy will need his strength for the day to come, a Qhorin will soon have his fill of sleep.

**

Rattleshirt laughs as the white wolf bites into his calf. The bite is superficial, only enough to draw blood, but the wildlings don’t know that. He allows himself to stumble, to pretend the wolf just removed a large chunk of his leg.

Snow’s sword is at his throat in an instant, drawing a line of fire across his windpipe. Qhorin falls.

The snow cushions his fall. Qhorin can see his lifeblood stain it red. The cold begins to fade from his limbs.

Jon Snow bends over him, eyes shiny with unshed tears. The direwolf licks his throat, just once, and it is soothing.

The boy is trying to say something, but an urgency grips Qhorin. He must say nothing – the wildlings must believe he is finishing Qhorin off.

“Good and sharp, Snow.” Qhorin rasps, or at least tries to, “Well done, Jon.” He hopes Snow can hear him. Blood bubbles from his lips, and the sky is a bright, bright blue, with an eagle on slate wings circling in the sky.

Everything goes dark.

**

And now his watch has ended.